Saturday, May 23, 2009

Princeton at the Cannes Film Festival: Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds

The fifth day at the Cannes Film Festival started out with a bang thanks to Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. Given that the film has such a high profile, I've decided to review it in a special edition of the blog series.

Inglorious Basterds dir. Quentin Tarantino- In Competition

Winner of the 1994 Palm d'Or for Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino has made a career through his energetic visual style and signature dialogue. Since his 1994 masterpiece, Tarantino has often entertained me but rarely impressed. The kung fu revenge pastiche Kill Bill felt like an overloaded exercise in genre, preferring to wallow in its various homages then aim for something truly new and spectacular. His follow-up, the underrated grindhouse thriller Death Proof, was far tighter bursting with an undeniable energy. With its beautiful mix of a kinetic direction and a toe tapping score, the lap dance scene from the exploitation film crackles with a magnetic intensity:

Watching the trailer for his latest World War II flick, I felt that the filmmaker was not going to deliver another Death Proof but a Kill Bill - an epic that never really transcends its genre trappings. Boy, was I wrong! Through the lens of a World War II film, Tarantino gains a new found provocative voice, supplementing his ever-present directorial panache with an unexpected amount of political incorrectness.

The term Inglourious Basterds derives from the moniker of a small group of a Jewish American soldiers sent covertly into occupied France to exterminate as many Nazis as possible. Led by the crazed Lieutenant Aldo the Apache (Brad Pitt), the covert team seeks to inflict cruelty on the Nazis in the attempt to collect hundreds of Nazi scalps. The other main thread of the narrative deals with the beautiful Shoshanna, an escaped Jew in hiding who runs a small Paris movie theater. She gets her opportunity to enact revenge upon her Nazi tormentors when the fascist party decides to hold a premiere of a propaganda film at her establishment. She hopes to achieve vengeance by transforming her cinema into an explosive deathtrap using antique nitrate film (which as the helpful commentary narrated by Samuel L. Jackson points out, “burns three times faster than paper.” Who knew?).

With its emphasis on "killing Nazis," the film's original trailer promises a few hours of nonstop violence. Certainly, the film contains enough blood and gore to satisfy even most ardent Reservoir Dogs fans. Hinting at the skewed mentality of the American heroes, Tarantino's camera lingers unflinchingly on the violence they commit. While Brad Pitt's Aldo the Apache interrogates a beautiful German double agent suspected of treason, he nonchalantly presses his finger into a bullet wound on her leg. As he inflicts this pain, the camera cuts to a tilted close-up of the wound being manipulated. Even with such graphic scenes, the film is much more than simply 'Kill Bill Goes to War,' sidestepping constant brutality for a far more intriguing suspenseful tone. The titular Basterds are not the focal point of the film; rather, the narrative focuses more upon Shoshanna and the film's most intriguing creation, the villain Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz).

Nicknamed "The Jew Hunter," Lander dominates the first chapter of the film which begins with the wistful inter-title "Once upon a time... in Nazi occupied France." The long opening, where Landa assesses if a French farmer hides a Jewish family, has little directorial ornamentation signaling that this film stands apart from Tarantino's recent work. Rather it uses the villain's disquieting charm and verbose nature, to build an almost unbearable suspense. He continually complements the interrogated farmer with a sincerity and zeal. This complete disregard for the typical methods of intimidation hints at Lander's unhinged nature. Later on, when he unexpectedly joins the disguised Shoshanna for strudel, he demands that she "Wait for the cream!" before eating. The actor Christoph Waltz spews forth this comment on dining etiquette with an unnerving intensity. His every word, even the most innocuous, becomes a threat transforming Lander into the best type of onscreen villain, one who is as captivating as he is repulsive.

While some supporting performances are great, others feel a bit more derivative, particularly Mike Myers' cameo as a British general. Whereas Tarantino has often reinvigorated actors caught in a rut (see John Travolta), Myers plays his aged military man with all the finesse of an Austin Powers reject. In a film where some of Tarantino's characters are so fresh, the stale quality of Meyer's performance stands out all the more.

The film quickly reveals its intentions to be something quite different from a Saving Private Ryan-like reenactment of history through its opening score. The music quietly brings together Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata with a Western-sounding guitar. Never does the film promise to slavishly reenact the past; rather, it is a cinematic fantasy. And like any good fantasy, Tarantino transports the viewer to another world - refashioning the tired World War II genre anew and making it his own in the process.

His visionary eye leaves its imprint on all facets of the genre from firefights to wartime intrigue. When Shoshana prepares for her evening with the Nazi party, Tarantino transforms her cosmetic process into a warlike ritual. As Shoshana applies rouge to her cheeks, the film captures the stern female as though she applies war paint. Although not a single drop of blood is spilled, the pulsating sequence is riveting in its unfettered view of a powerful femme fatale.

It was rumored that Tarantino was still editing the film a day before its Cannes premiere. While Inglourious Basterds does have an unfinished quality (expect to see more Pitt in the final cut), at its core, it remains something wholly unique for Tarantino. Already the director has fashioned a work that has the indefinable pulse that marks his best films. With a bit more refinement, the tale could possibly be Tarantino's next masterpiece.

Thoughts on the Offensive Side of Tarantino

While I found much to enjoy in Tarantino's latest, several film critics lodged rather intense complaints against the film. One journalist mentioned that she "hated" the film, for presenting an ultra-American slant on European history. I find that this criticism, against its blatant retooling of the war, highlights a larger critical resistance to play by the rules of the film. Never does Inglourious Basterds promise to realistically honor the past and remains clearly a sort of fairy tale from the very first scene. After speaking impeccable French with the farmer he interrogates, Lander states that he has exhausted his vocabulary and asks "mind if we speak English?" The tongue-in-cheek moment illustrates Tarantino's intentions to play with history embracing theatricality rather than reality. Other World War II films at the film festival, including the dull Vincente and the equally blasé The Army of Crime, illustrate how a reverence towards history can be artistically stifling.

L’Armee du Crime (The Army of Crime) dir. Robert Guediguian

Whereas Tarantino takes World War II in strange and new directions, director Robert Guediguian's L’Armee du Crime is a rigidly by the numbers affair. Seen in conjunction with Inglourious Bastards, it only underscores how derivative this type of film has now become.

Detailing the exploits of Parisian-based resistance fighters during the occupation, the film presents an unnervingly glossed over and simplistic view of war. The resistance fighters give grand speeches on the principals of war quickly devolving into pure caricature. Oddly, these exaggeratedly noble aspects of their personalities clash with the very real violence of the struggle. In attempting to capture such ideals in a non-allegorical reality (unlike Tarantino's fairy tale), the film forces history into an uninvolving muddle. Typical of L’Armee du Crime, is a scene where the resistance leader uses very high-minded rhetoric to discuss his changing view upon the validity of revenge. Keep in mind, the leader does not deliver this speech in a public forum but rather in the midst of a quiet conversation. The film is so devoted to detailing the glorious aspects of their struggle that its more compelling subtext, such as the nascent divisions of French society during the Occupation, goes largely unexplored. Its inert and unremarkable presentation falls flat making a convincing case that a change needs to occur in the period war drama. Unlike Tarantino's involving film, L’Armee du Crime did nothing but bore me.

After festival comes to a close in the coming weekend, expect many more reviews from Cannes including Michael Haneker's The White Ribbon and Jacques Audiard's A Prophet.


Raj R. said...

Can Eli Roth act?

Fareed Ben-Youssef said...

Roth needs only do two things in the role: glare and look menacing....He does both well but whether or not he can actually act remains an unanswered question.

Michael said...

Eli Roth SUCKS as a director and actor. Goes to show how being Tarantino's little down low man hole gets you a role in a movie.

Face it, Tarantino's over.

Anonymous said...

This update is comforting, thanks.

Anonymous said...

This is why the American education system is a total joke. Throwing money at departments and teachers doesn't make for intelligent students. Ivy League void.

Thanks anonymous Princeton student for your thoroughly depressing gap-mouthed-and-dribbling criticality. Definitely a pleasure.

So like... it was like... totally... ENTERTAINING? Like, how could it be offensive? Like, y'know? i just don't geddit? dude, I need to come up MY spin on it man… political incorrectness is coaaaal. I’m so pohmoh, but like… I totally don’t get what that even means? I do knoaw whut ‘panache’ means – that’s how I gad in. S.A.T.WORDZAREKKKKKKEWL!!1129

Mind you, success for American linearity.

What a waste of an opportunity.

Next time Princeton, how about you send something which has a more or less intact capacity for incisive thought, rather than this cerebrally truncated, slightly out of shot extra from a George A. Romero film.

Mike Vinson said...

Nice review and writing, Fareed. Really enjoyed it.

Raj R. said...

Being an out-of-shot extra from a Romero movie sounds kind of like a compliment to me.

America said...

Five eurasians living in America on a falsified visa, most likely in hollywood/new york as they always do, have to go back home to kill one of their leaders. This same boatshit also voted for obama and got their asses killed by america for doing it. That's the real story behind the story.

Fareed Ben-Youssef said...

SAT words - The bread and butter of any blog post.

As for the Basterd's political incorrectness, it is less a journalistic hook and more a quality deep-seated in the film that makes it so compelling, so unlike any Tarantino film that has come before it.

Recently acclaimed films from the aforementioned Saving Private Ryan to The Reader illustrate how the WW2 subject is often treated reverence. To brazenly fly in the face of this antistatic convention and craft a World War film with such a definite pulp edge creates a production that truly shocks.

If that wasn't not enough, Christoph Waltz's recent Best Actor win at Cannes suggests that Basterds delivers this year's defining villain along the lines of Joker or Anton Chigurh (This is one award the festival got right - Waltz gives a phenomenal performance).

Anonymous said...

"Thanks anonymous Princeton student for your thoroughly depressing gap-mouthed-and-dribbling criticality. Definitely a pleasure."

Who is this referring to? If the blogger, I don't get the anonymous part (nor his singling out considering the pathetic state of professional film journalism academic film criticism). If the "Anonymous" poster at 6:09pm, then I don't see how such a savage inference was made from the expression. Tarantino is indubitably one of the top mainstream filmmakers (having not yet made a subpar film, which is more than I can say for almost all major directors that come to mind). One does not want to see such a person fail.

Anonymous said...

"Next time Princeton, how about you send something which has a more or less intact capacity for incisive thought, rather than this cerebrally truncated, slightly out of shot extra from a George A. Romero film."

Someone needs to put down the Oxycontin bottle.

Raj R. said...

Hilariously, after many critics complained the movie was too long, Tarantino will be adding 19 minutes to the cut released in American theaters.