After meetings and more meetings, I took a 2.5-hour break to catch Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds as it premiered Wednesday in Cannes. Here are my thoughts, as they first appeared in Ain’t It Cool News earlier today:
As the noon screening ended, the film was met with rapturous applause after Brad Pitt’s final line “I think this might be my masterpiece.” It’s not Tarantino’s ultimate masterpiece, but it’s a fantastic film and delivers on the promise of a literate (if not historically accurate) and exciting (if not briskly paced) WWII action drama.
The titular “Basterds” are not the main focus of the film, but merely one segment of a large ensemble (comprised of international stars like Daniel Bruhl and Diane Kruger). The film segues between characters, years, and even subtitles as we get a fair dose of French, German, Italian, and English dialogue. The film begins with the massacre of a Jewish family hiding in France, with one daughter (Shosanna Dreyfus, played very well by Melanie Laurent) escaping the clucthes of the super evil commander Hans “The Jew Hunter” Landa (played brilliantly in an awards-worthy performance by Christoph Waltz).
From there, we meet the Basterds, led by Tennessee native Aldo Raine (portrayed with charisma by Brad Pitt). He makes his mission clear: he wants to torture the Nazis like they have tortured European Jews. The Basterds are vicious, with bloodier than bloody imagery as they scalp their targets and leave one survivor (NATURAL BORN KILLERS style) to tell the tale. Plus, the survivors are left with a carved swastika on their foreheads.
You don’t really get to know the Basterds themselves, except for Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth), a Boston native called “The Bear Jew,” who chooses to end his Nazi opponents with a baseball bat. There’s also Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger), a former Nazi gone rouge, who is introduced with an entertaining montage narrated by Samuel L. Jackson.
Years later, Shosanna is running a cinema in France, when she becomes the object of affection for German celebrity soldier Frederick Zoller (Bruhl). Zoller is the subject of a new propaganda film, and uses his clout to have the premiere held at this small theater. Soshanna sees this as a chance to kill all the high command Nazis in one moment. Intertwined in these moments is plenty of discussion about German cinema, both pre and post Hitler. While Tarantino has used cinephile dialogue in ways both smart (PULP FICTION) and forced (DEATH PROOF), the filmic chatter in BASTERDS feels smooth.
Some have commented that the film is too talky, but I’d argue these dialogue-heavy scenes work rather well, especially when placed in sequences that are incredibly tense (the opening scene, a barroom confrontation involving two Allies spies). So, it’s an accomplishment of Tarantino’s direction and editing that help it pay off.
While the Germans prep for the premiere, the Basterds begin to devise their own plan for this screening. What transpires is perhaps Tarantino’s greatest climax ever: a taut and engaging setpiece where anything can happen (and some crazy/good things do).
I feel the film as a whole is a great ride. Early reports indicate it may not be the final theatrical version, and while I could see 10 minutes trimmed here and there, I feel it still delivers as is. The only warning for viewers anticipating the film’s August release would be: this is not two hours of Nazi hunting. We only get one or two scenes of the Basterds at work. The film is a “guys on a mission” movie as Tarantino has commented, except the “guys” aren’t just the Basterds but also Shosanna, Landa, British spy Hicox (Michael Fassbender) and more.
This film is an impressive international drama about the end of WWII, almost like THE LONGEST DAY with movie geek dialogue and a timeless soundtrack pop songs from other films. What the soundtrack and ending may lack in historical grounding, Tarantino makes up for by casting French actors as French characters, German actors as German characters (except for Fassbender as a Brit but that will make sense when you see it), and enough foreign language respect to please audiences worldwide.