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Cannes '09: Inglourious Basterds

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Still planning a roundup from my somewhat abortive Day 7, but here’s breaking news from Day 8, as I’m sure many of you would prefer not to wait 24 hours to hear about Inglourious Basterds just so that I can stick to my predetermined coverage plan. Tarantino’s long-awaited WWII epic turns out to be nothing like what I’d expected—a shambling mass of contradictions that’s likely to divide QT partisans like nothing since Jackie Brown. Conceptually, this is easily the strangest film he’s ever made, as well as the least commercially viable. Its multi-chapter (yet doggedly linear) narrative doesn’t really conform to any familiar war-movie prototype, least of all the Dirty Dozen-style killer-platoon template I’d assumed. Apart from Brad Pitt, whose role is no larger than anybody else’s, most of the sprawling ensemble cast ranges from little-known to who-dat? At least 75% of the movie’s nonstop dialogue is in subtitled French, German, or Italian. And the whole thing is a bizarrely touching exercise in vicarious wish-fulfillment, in which a Gentile filmmaker fashions an alternate history that allows the Jews to kick Hitler’s ass—literally, not metaphorically. Let’s just say that the Nuremberg Trials would not likely have been necessary in the parallel universe that Inglourious Basterds inhabits.

So far so intriguing, yes? Here’s the rub, though: In terms of its tone, its rhythms, its (sorry, I have to) mise-en-scène, its moment-to-moment creativity and imagination and inventiveness, this is far and away the most ordinary film Tarantino has ever made. Granted, individual scenes are longer and talkier than most filmmakers would dare—Basterds opens with a conversation between a French dairy farmer (Denis Menochet) and a Nazi “Jew hunter” (Christoph Waltz, in the film’s only truly memorable performance) that I clocked at about 25 minutes. But while Tarantino does a fine job of sustaining tension throughout this lengthy dialogue, the comparative whimper with which it ends makes it feel retroactively expository, even perfunctory. And that uncharacteristic lack of energy persists throughout, whether we’re watching Pitt and his Jewish terror squad threaten a German officer with death by Louisville Slugger or the British High Command (cameos by Michael Fassbender and a surprisingly restrained Mike Myers) work up a jolly-good plot to blow up the cinema where Hitler, Goebbels, and others plan to attend the premiere of a new propaganda film about a heroic sniper (Daniel Brühl). Tarantino deserves credit for holding my attention and interest for nearly three hours, but while I was never bored by Inglourious Basterds, I was never terribly excited by it, either. It was just kind of…there, stuck in second gear, functioning like the longest decent B-movie programmer of all time. (Death Proof, by contrast, is a brilliant avant-garde experiment cleverly disguised as a throwaway exploitation flick; its digressive talkathons have drive and purpose.) I admire the film’s fantasy-empowerment moxie, but it’s the first time QT has made a movie that I have no desire whatsoever to see again. Grade: B-