Movie Review: Inglourious Basterds

It’s perhaps worth noting here that, as far as I can tell, this is the second Tarantino-directed movie where Quentin himself doesn’t get in front of the camera at some point, as he’s wont to do in most of his other movies, Kill Bill being the other notable one. But where Kill Bill was brilliant for its action sequences, its all too overt nods to kung fu and samurai movies, Inglourious Basterds ignores World War II movie convention as brazenly as the spelling in the title, making it recognisable and yet giving you reason for a double-take.

Inglourious Basterds starts out with an old-school opening credits, refusing to layer names on action as has become the norm, and the first chapter of five is introduced as “Once upon a time… in Nazi occupied France, 1941” as though to declare up front this is a fairy-tale which references and adapts real events into the story to follow. If you were expecting something like The Dirty Dozen, or even Saving Private Ryan done Tarantino style, be prepared for something entirely different – although if you’re watching a Tarantino movie with any prior expectations, it would be that this isn’t going to be more of the usual.

The opening scene could be a short film all by itself, nearly standing alone from the rest of the movie and with all the trappings of a full narrative arc. In the idyllic French countryside, at the dairy farm of Perrier LaPadite, we are introduced to the deliciously intellectual Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), “the Jew hunter” of the SS in France, who speaks German, French, English and (later) Italian with apparently equal fluency. He is perhaps the primary antagonist of the movie and plays a far more pivotal role than the eponymous Basterds, who we are introduced to in the second, brief, chapter. We also see Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent, playing a true femme fatale), a Jewish girl, and are left wondering as to her fate, though not for long.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Italy, Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is inspecting  his crack team of eight Jewish soldiers, planning to drop behind German lines to kill soldiers as a guerrilla style force years before the term guerrilla became common. Raine is of partially Native American blood, and in that tradition demands his men bring him 100 Nazi scalps. If you’ve not heard of scalping before, you’re about to get a very graphic demonstration.

The majority of the action takes place around in 1944. The Basterds have instilled terror in the German foot soldiers, and even to the point where Hitler is trying to counter rumours himself. In Paris, Shosanna is disguised as Emmanuelle Mimieux, and owns and runs a glorious art deco theatre in a quiet street of the city. When a German soldier with an interest in movies approaches her, she first repels his advances, and then, after being corralled into hosting a premiere for the Nazi top brass, finds the attention useful as a cover for plotting vengeance on the prosecutors of her people. Meanwhile, the British and a double-agent are plotting an operation to blow up the same cinema, and call in the Basterds to help pull it off.

What follows is a series of scenes where the tension is ratcheted bit by bit, until at last the climax unleashes the violence we fully expect of a war movie, albeit with the director of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction‘s own frantic interpretation. While Tarantino does not commit the hubristic sin of referencing his own movies, his style is painted over this movie with a brush a mile wide. The reams of dialogue in three languages (and then some) making this a movie where you have to concentrate on the words, a refreshing change to the usual blockbuster trash where you can watch without paying attention to words, the plot adequately revealed by explosions.

I think I agree most with Time’s review, especially in that it is very much a European-style, foreign language film – I’d be hard put to say whether there’s more time when the dialogue is in English or some other language, an authenticity that you’d never get with all characters speaking English, as accessible as that might make it. I love also that in some scenes, we’re clearly guided to a particular character’s viewpoint by not being given subtitles for languages they don’t know. Brilliantly played out, almost novel-like – and would certainly be all the more rewarding for those who can speak German, French and English, as I’m sure a number of Europeans would.

You’ll pardon me if my descriptions of the plot and characters seem a bit torturous – this is genuinely a movie you don’t want to spoil, and I’m thankful that the trailer is a bit of a hodge-podge that doesn’t reveal nearly enough. In a few key scenes, the tension is palpable, and I’d watch it over and over again to discover new aspects of the movie.

For all that dialogue and plot gets the attention here in this text-based medium, the visuals are not to be forgotten. Tarantino lingers in some of his shots, especially on the two lead females, a habit he seems to have developed somewhere between Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill. The style looks timeless, and it’s definitely worth watching in the cinemas. A note for the queasy though – there’s a few confronting scenes of blood, violence and gore, and if you’re the type that can’t stand the sight of blood even on screen, there will be more than a few moments where you’re peeking through fingers at this. Excessive maybe, but very much in Tarantino’s way of doing things.

At this point, I think I’m sounding very much like this a flawless movie, but I hesitate to say it’s not a perfect 5-star experience. The plot feels a bit like a two-for-one deal – two distinct stories, standing alone but for the antagonist and the catalyst of the Nazi brass all in one public place. The Basterds of the title are neglected, I felt, in favour of telling Shosanna’s story, but then from all reports key scenes from that story, such as those with Maggie Cheung, were cut in an effort to “squeeze” it into two and a half hours (though in its defence, those hours go by very much unnoticed). If anything, I’d have been happy for Tarantino to make a pair of movies, perhaps along the lines of the two Kill Bill volumes, perhaps as two versions of the same ending where you could pick touch points later.

In the end though, what’s made is made and what’s cut is probably waiting on the DVD release in a few months time, at which point it’d be possible to go over this movie again with a fine toothed comb, pausing at all the moments where I felt like pulling out a reference book for movie and period references. Tarantino continues to make films that are different, unique and creative without sacrificing entertainment and scope, and it’s for that reason I hope that this movie, or indeed earlier Tarantino movies, inspires some studios to take more chances with their film-making

“Out now in cinemas everywhere,” I believe, is the usual finish to a movie you can heartily recommend. ★★★★☆