Cannes 2009 Review: Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds
by Alex Billington
May 20, 2009
What were you expecting? Quentin Tarantino's long-awaited WWII extravaganza Inglourious Basterds premiered today in Cannes amidst a considerable amount of buzz. I'll admit that it was the one Cannes film I was looking forward to seeing the most. But is it a masterpiece? Not exactly. Tarantino doesn't reach those heights this time, though he does kick things up a notch in a way that even I wasn't expecting. Basterds is a bit light on the action, heavy on the talking, and full of great performances. It's as awesome as Tarantino's first two films and as entertaining as his most recent few. It's the WWII movie we've been waiting to see.
Primarily set around a movie theater in Paris, Inglourious Basterds is yet another Tarantino love-letter to cinema, disguised in an epic and thoroughly engaging WWII story. In a lengthy, but altogether brilliant opening scene, we are introduced to the two main characters: Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), a Jew hiding out in France, and Nazi Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), known as the "Jew Hunter", who is out to rid the entire country of every last Jewish person. When Shosanna is discovered, she flees to Paris to work at a cinema, but we'll get back to her story later, because we're then introduced to "the Basterds," the nine-man Nazi-scalping Jewish-American squad that the film is named after and they do kick ass.
Interestingly, there's not a lot of time spent exploring their side of the story. We know who they are, we know what they do, and Tarantino at least gives us a few unforgettable scenes showing just how brutally badass they are, but not too much more. Instead, our focus is on Shosanna, who soon learns that Nazi war hero Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) wants to have the world premiere of his propaganda film Nation's Pride at her theater. Since every last Nazi leader will be there, including Hitler, the Basterds set a course for Paris as well, putting the two on a collision course, as Shosanna wants to exact her revenge on Hans Landa at the very same time. Everything starts lead up to that final moment of "will they pull it off?"
Fellow critic Gregg Kilday was dead on in saying that Basterds is, "the grindhouse version of Valkyrie." I was already going to make that comparison (even if it's a bit unsettling to some) and I agree with Kilday's assessment. Once the story really got going, my heart started beating faster and I started to sweat in wondering if they were both going to be successful or not. Tarantino has indeed written a great story, though it's full of scene after scene of extensive dialogue and minimal amounts of action. But that's to be expected from Tarantino. It's also expected that this dialogue be some of the best written, and definitely is.
As good as the story was, the acting was the highlight of Basterds. Tarantino has rounded up a hell of an ensemble cast, including specifically Christoph Waltz and Mélanie Laurent, who were certainly the best of the bunch. Waltz plays Hans Landa, already a new Tarantino classic, like a German Merovingian (think Matrix), with a light touch of comedy that hides an immense amount of power - the kind of character you can't wait to see again when he's not on screen. Eli Roth also hits his role out of the park (pun intended) as the "Bear Jew," a soldier who wields a baseball bat that he puts into use killin' Nazi's a few times.
So why isn't this a masterpiece if its got top-notch performances and a great story? Maybe it's that I wanted more action, or to spend more time with the Basterds, or get a more detailed look at the whole story, that prevented this from reaching those heights. Even though it ran 148 minutes, it still felt like Tarantino had edited it down heavily and cut out plenty of scenes. I never read the script, so I can't make that comparison, but I will say my expectations were definitely not in line with what Tarantino delivered in the end. That's not bad, but I just had to rearrange my expectations part way through. And while I don't think this gem is polished to perfection, it is definitely a new Tarantino favorite that I can't wait to watch again.
I'm not going to rank Inglourious Basterds up against all of Tarantino's other films yet, as I need to see it again and mull over it a bit more before I make that judgment. But this is my initial reaction and it's as positive as it can be. Tarantino has done a terrific job with Basterds and delivered a WWII movie that I'm certain we've never seen before. Don't expect to see Tarantino's version of Saving Private Ryan, as it's not about the action, but about the story, the characters, and the ever-so-important dialogue. Don't worry, there are a few unforgettable scenes that will makes Tarantino fans very happy. Tarantino has done it again!
Cannes Rating: 8.5 out of 10