Tarantino’s macaroni-combat film—‘a twisted sort of fairy tale’
The deliberately misspelled title is one of the tip-offs. So is an introductory title card that reads, “Once upon a time … in occupied France.”
The new Quentin Tarantino joint is an extravagant fiction in an ostensibly historical setting—a twisted sort of fairy tale, exuberantly “incorrect” in more ways than one, and riffing on war movies and World War II, mixing darkly comical fantasies with flagrantly caricatured slivers of historical reality.
As always with Tarantino, bursts of extreme violence are part of the mix, but one of the more intriguing peculiarities of this long, sprawling movie is that the great bulk of its action is given over to lengthy dialogue scenes, the extended quirky conversations that are another of this filmmaker’s trademarks. The violence itself, when it finally arrives, is absurd, grotesque and abrupt—and still something of a brief and unexpected shock, given the meandering, perversely comical exchanges that both precede and delay its sudden and actually rather brief occurrences.
Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and his dirty-dozen-style band of Jewish commando/avengers are the title characters and the foremost figures in the film’s publicity. But the character given the most screen time—and the most central and tangled role in the assorted strands of Tarantino’s brashly fanciful narrative—is Col. Hans Landa, the Nazi officer played by German actor Christoph Waltz. Waltz’s standout performance, an offbeat blend of suave menace and cartoonish geniality, is a keynote for the film as a whole.
But Landa, Raine and the Basterds are only part of the story. Other characters of note include Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), a Jewish resistance fighter whose family was murdered by Landa; Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a German war hero who is also the star of a new propaganda film; Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), a German movie star who is aiding the Allies; Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), a British officer who gets involved in a scheme to assassinate Hitler, Goebbels and other Nazi brass at a movie premiere.
Even without mention that Hicox is also a film critic and Shosanna also manages a Paris cinema, all of those movie-connected characters are another tip-off—Inglourious Basterds is pre-eminently a movie about movies. And that’s a big part of whatever offbeat entertainment it is able to generate, at the same time that it is also intimately linked to its most significant limitations.
Even a movie that gleefully subverts the clichés and stereotypes of conventional war movies remains partly dependent on those same clichés. When the events involved are World War II and the Holocaust, playing that game gets even more problematical.