Quentin Tarantino is such an overflowingly talented maker of films that you wonder when he’s going to grow up into a real filmmaker. Tarantino’s new World War II movie, [movie id="404229"]“Inglourious Basterds,”[/movie] brings with it the usual avalanche of insider film-geek references: A character named Aldo Raine is a reference to the late Aldo Ray, star of the 1955 war movie “Battle Cry”; the name of another character — Hugo Stiglitz — refers to a Mexican horror-film star. The most instructive of these little allusions, though, deals with two 1940s films by the French director Henri-Georges Clouzot. The title of one of these, “Le Corbeau,” is glimpsed here on a movie-theatre marquee. A poster for the other, “L’Assassin Habite au 21,” is seen on the wall in another shot. The star of both of those pictures was Pierre Fresnay, who also starred in Jean Renoir’s World War I classic “Grand Illusion.”
Presumably Tarantino thought that just slipping a poster for “Grand Illusion” into a scene would have been too obvious. But even this oblique reference is revealing. “Grand Illusion” is the greatest and most humane of all war movies — humane in the sense that it deals with timeless human concerns: the passage of time, the futility of war. “Inglourious Basterds” deals neither with these things, nor with such other eternal subjects as love, injustice or loss. Tarantino’s films are essays in cleverness, which relieves him of the burden of having to say anything meaningful about the human condition, even in a clever way. His multi-referential jokiness worked brilliantly in the synthetic construct of “Pulp Fiction,” 15 years ago. But will he ever move on?
Tarantino’s admirers (I’m one) will object that this is a wild comedy, not a serious-issues picture, and they’re right. But great comedies, even the frothiest screwball classics, deal with actual people, or at least recognizable human types. Tarantino tends to deal only with his interests, which, even after all this time, are still limited mainly to movies.
“Inglourious Basterds” is basically an extended gag about Aldo Raine, a redneck Army lieutenant (played by Brad Pitt), organizing a group of Jewish GIs to infiltrate German-occupied France for the purpose of killing Nazis. This premise at least has the virtue of moral clarity. And there’s probably no point in being offended by Tarantino’s turning World War II — a conflagration that consumed the lives of some 60-million people — into a giddy joke. The same has been said about the old TV series “Hogan’s Heroes” — although that show did at least attempt to keep its distance from the war’s hideous essence. Here we see Nazi soldiers firing their guns down through a farmhouse floor to exterminate a group of Jews who are hiding in the cellar. That the murdered Jews aren’t actually seen allows the director to avoid any buzz-killing emotional charge.
One young Jewish woman escapes this slaughter. Her name is Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), and when we next see her, three years later, she’s made it to Paris, where she’s running — what else? — a movie theater. Here we can note the inevitable: This being a Tarantino picture, it’s relentlessly movie-centric. When the British high command decides to dispatch an officer to assist the Nazi-hunting Basterds, who’ve also arrived in Paris, he turns out to be a former movie critic, and he discourses for us on the Nazi takeover of Germany’s legendary UFA film studio in Babelsberg (where this picture was partly shot). We’re also given a barrow-load of information about the flammable properties of old nitrate film stock. And movie scholars, if no one else, will register the presence of an actor playing Emil Jannings, the silent-film star who became a Nazi pet. (Jannings was also the first actor to win an Academy Award, in 1929, as you surely know.)
Along the way to Paris, we’ve learned that Aldo Raine is half Apache, which is why he’s ordered his men to bring back the scalp of every Nazi they kill. (Can there be any other reason for this pointless plot quirk than the opportunity it offered Tarantino to insert a memorable image of a knife hacking the scalp off a corpse? The movie’s gore quota is further fulfilled by the director’s pal, Eli Roth, playing a Basterd called “the Bear Jew,” whose specialty is bashing in the skulls of captured Nazis with a baseball bat.)
Raine and company have a special purpose in Paris. It has been learned that a new Nazi propaganda movie will be premiering there — at Shosanna’s theater, in fact — and that Adolf Hitler and other top Nazis will be in attendance. The Basterds’ assignment is to blow the place up during the show. But Shosanna has a plan of her own for the big night. Can history be blithely rewritten? Of course. But to what purpose?
All of this said, the movie is beautifully photographed (by Robert Richardson, who also shot Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” pictures). And it contains some wonderfully well-constructed set-piece scenes — especially the opening farmhouse encounter (overextended though it is) that introduces the silky-scary SS colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), and later a chaotic shootout in a French pub. There’s also some gorgeous imagery: A shot of an ecstatic face rearing up on a screen amid engulfing flames is one of the most striking things Tarantino has ever come up with — it actually recalls some of the great old UFA silent films.
The actors seem to be having fun, too. Pitt’s good-ole-boy role is awfully broad, but he’s such a star that he manages to make the character consistently entertaining. And Diane Kruger brings a vintage wartime glamour to the role of German movie actress (and secret British agent) Bridget von Hammersmark. The picture’s one unforgettable performance, though, is by Waltz. His Hans Landa is a brilliant creation, all oily seduction and serpentine menace. In another context (a more serious movie, for instance), he’d be ghastly. Here he’s mesmerizing, and Waltz owns every scene into which he sets foot. (He justly won the Best Actor award at the last Cannes Film Festival.)
How much of an audience “Inglourious Basterds” will be able to retain after its first week or two is an open question. The movie is two and a half hours long, and you may find your finger twitching in search of a delete button as the camera circles endlessly around overlong conversations, or lingers for no reason on the dolloping of whipped cream onto a slice of strudel. There’s more talk in the picture than there is action — and a lot of the talk is in subtitled French, German and Italian. Tarantino is rightly esteemed for his sharp dialogue; but as was also the case with his last film, the dire “Death Proof,” there’s too much of it here, and a lot of it’s not as sharp as might be hoped. In short, “Inglourious Basterds” is not “Pulp Fiction.” It’s not even a war movie. It’s a movie about other war movies — a riot of references with no stabilizing core. Yet again.
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