Cannes report: Brad Pitt in Tarantino's 'Inglourious Basterds'
May 20, 2009
by Lisa Schwarzbaum
Categories: Cannes Film Festival 2009, Film
I wish you had been there with me this morning.
Seriously, I wish everyone who ever wants to see Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino's newest, brash cine-geek homage to genre moviemaking, could have been there waiting for an hour with me at 7:30 on a sparkling sunny weekday morning at the Cannes Film Festival. It would have been so great if you could have joined the mob stamping and twitching and actually buzzing to get into the very first, 8:30 a.m. screening of the very latest, certainly very Brad Pitt-iest movie to arrive on the Croisette from the very oxygenated Palme d'Or winner. Oh, how you would have enjoyed breathing the heady atmosphere for which QT made his creation! Plus, you would have freaked out the squadron of guards!
As it is, the minute the festival tents fold and the movie is eventually released in less glamorous American movie theaters, it's unlikely that this joke-y, boyish, play-acted war-game fantasy (at least half spoken in German and French) can ever be inhaled with quite the right mixture of helium and nitrous oxide required to sustain the anticipatory hullaballoo. The tall-tale premise introduces a small band of primarily Jewish, Nazi-hating "basterds," led by doggone Tennessee mountain drawler Aldo Raine (Pitt), who join forces with one Shoshanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), a French Jewish woman who escaped while her family was murdered, and who now runs a little local movie theater. While the boys scalp Nazis (watch! one of them also specializes in clubbing heads with an American baseball bat!), Shoshanna has plans to topple the Third Reich by killing Hitler and all his biggies assembled at one screening of a Nazi-propaganda war drama in her Cinema Paradiso of a movie hall.
And yet: It's amazing how little Nazis, Hitler, mass murder, or Resistance bravery mean in this action cartoon. Tarantino is a brilliant showman, the smartest, most erudite guy in the movie clubhouse, a master at re-creating old and/or exotic styles (Hong Kong action, blaxploitation) for a new audience -- no argument. Inglourious Basterds pays homage to spaghetti westerns, noirs, WWII war pics, and spy thrillers, and those who adore being in the know about cinema history will feel super satisfied to figure out throw-away allusions to past movie stars, movie makers, movie scenes, and movie costumes.
But how deep can a movie that repurposes recycled material go? Not very. I've never felt that Tarantino has ever been interested in real emotions or real characters, and that's fine, that's not his thing. But the choice is also an Inglourious limitation. So Pitt play acts; that's what's called for. And Jews and movies win the war this time around. But a Nazi steals the picture. I'm talking about Austrian actor Christoph Waltz -- huge in his home country, unknown in ours but about to be famous -- who's memorable long after the credits roll in retro typography. (Ennio Morricone's retro music works hard, too.) Waltz plays icily precise Nazi colonel Hans Landa, known as "the Jew Hunter." And from his very first scene, in which Landa pries information out of a French farmer, spaghetti-western style, he's irresistible, a one-man display of theatrical virtuosity applied to a villain we're meant to love to hate.
Second-best Nazi award, by the way, goes to the celebrated young German actor Daniel Bruhl (The Bourne Ultimatum), while German-born Diane Kruger wins the award as best German undercover agent/actress in high-heeled pumps. Oh, and B.J.Novak from The Office? He's a Jewish Basterd, too. No joke.