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Film Of The Weekend: Inglourious Basterds (2009)

July 15, 2010 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

I’m not around this weekend, so here’s your top tip for the weekend, showing on Sky Premiere at various times every day.

Usual spoiler warnings apply…

Inglourious Basterds
(Quentin Tarantino, US, 2009)

Oh my God, you’ve killed Hitler! You Basterds! Tarantino warps WWII to his own rhythm: cartoonish, childish and almost indedecently entertaining

The negative reaction of some critics to Inglourious Basterds doesn’t surprise me. I went through my own moment of doubt with Quentin Tarantino way back when Kill Bill, Vol. 1 was released, finding it immature, superficial and often surprisingly boring. Of course, it proved to be a minor glitch in my appreciation for this most totemic of directors – for many a maddening and irresponsible force, but at his best electrifying in a way that few filmmakers can even comprehend. I’m glad to say that I’m back with the movie lovers who have rated Basterds a return to form. There isn’t another director who could have conceived it, and none who would pull it off with such brazen chutzpah, forever hovering on the verge of the abyss but nimbly avoiding actually falling into it..

By now, we know what to expect: a movie about movies, rooted in Tarantino’s immersive knowledge of B-movie arcana and completely lacking in any depth or critical rigour beyond a connoisseur’s love of music and movement, gesture and speech. Where you stand on the divide depends on how sensitive you are to that style being used to depict the carnage of war and the Holocaust. On one level, clearly, we’re in the realm of bad taste, all the more insidious because of Tarantino’s mastery of craft. On another level, something this playful, entertaining and almost dementedly anti-Nazi is pretty hard to dislike.

It works because Tarantino is a natural but atypical storyteller. What particularly interests him isn’t the finely woven threads that link A to B, but the stuffing that bulks it out. Or, to put it another way, he likes the Pulp in Fiction. And Inglourious Basterds thrives on the tension between his inclination for shaggy-dog structure (how a scene is turned, using suspense, surprise, comedy and all the other tricks in the arsenal) and the demands of a specific genre. Because this is very definitely a WWII movie, one where the arrival of an S.S. officer signals imminent badness and whose tense stand-offs will inevitably collapse into slaughter – but in Tarantino-land, the delay is stretched to breaking point. In essence, the entire film is five sequences, four of which end in bloodshed (the fifth, central ‘chapter’ just there to prop things up with exposition) – but the teasing and tantalising gets longer and longer, building up drama, toning it down, revving back up. It’s narrative as foreplay, and Tarantino is back to being the foot fucking master. Chapter 4, ‘Operation Kino,’ charting a secret rendez-vous in a tavern that unravels with scary plausibility, must go on for half an hour, but the journey is thrilling.

The authorship is immaculate, and the film’s element of self-parody comes from Tarantino’s realisation that, once you’ve created your style, you can alchemise everything. He begins with an elaborate Leone pastiche that, genuinely, for all the world, looks and feels like Leone…before the dialogue kicks off with a long, loping, constantly digressing conversation that can only be Tarantino’s work. Hidden Jews are murdered in a scary, choking set-piece…yet within minutes, we’re watching an over-the-top Hitler impersonator that Mel Brooks would baulk at. It’s not just the visuals: the entire soundtrack is a ‘found’ collage of pre-existing scores, the orchestral version of his early films’ 70s jukeboxes. And as for the cast…

It’s a cliché to praise Tarantino for the instinctive magpie skill with which he assembles his rag-tag army of actors, but surely he’s just taking the piss here. He effortlessly cherry-picks well-known unknown talents from across Europe, bungs in one of his mates, and garnishes with a single bona-fide star. The more familiar faces are slumming it: Brad Pitt’s just having fun, while Eli Roth has the nervous grin of somebody who can’t believe he’s getting away with this. But Euro-stalwart Diane Kruger (hitherto just a pretty face in Hollywood movies) gives probably her best performance, Melanie Laurent is a new icon of chic rebellion and Christoph Waltz is… well, let’s just say, extraordinary. Not being familiar with his work in German TV soap operas means it’s hard to know where the acting starts, but it’s such a charismatic performance – polite and prissy one minute, scalpel-sharp intense the next – that it’s instantly in the director’s hall of fame.

Great scenes, great music, great performances: none of this is news. But still Tarantino’s outdone himself this time. It isn’t enough that he can warp language to his will, with a title that demands you throw out the dictionary before spelling. The biggest thing Tarantino alchemises here? History. The film’s final act culminates in an extraordinary piece of rewriting, a Jewish revenge-fantasy in which the Nazi high command is wiped out in conflagration. It’s a twist that manages to mock both the tendency of Hollywood to make things up, and the earnestness of ‘faithful to the letter’ real life stories: the makers of Valkyrie, in particularly, must feel like dullards for sticking to the record. Happily, in Tarantino’s world, the director is king and can do what he wants. Such reckless abandon has made him enemies, and he’s milking things a little too much when even the characters join in with the auteur-love, but on this evidence it’s churlish – not to mention pointless – to wish for a more mature, seriously-minded Tarantino. Why would we want that when we’re having so much fun?

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