At Cannes: Inglourious Basterds
At an overflowing press screening Wednesday morning, Quentin Tarantino's much-anticipated WWII epic Inglourious Basterds premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to a group of less-than-enthusiastic journalists.
The film tells the dual tales of a plot to assassinate Hitler as he watches a German propaganda film in Nazi-occupied France, and the ragtag band of American soldiers -- the Basterds -- whose sole mission is to torture and kill Nazis.
Basterds opens in the French countryside in 1941. A German SS officer, Col. Hans Landa (Christophe Waltz), and his henchmen visit the home of Perrier Lapadit (Denis Menochet). The colonel is searching for the family of an errant Jew from the village. Lapadit graciously invites Landa in for a glass of milk, but a gut-wrenching, incredibly terrifying interrogation ensues. It's a brilliant opening, and immediately highlights the real star of the film: the actor Waltz, whose turn as the bilingual, cunning "Jew Hunter" is the finest performance at the Festival thus far. He switches personas effortlessly: once a docile, accommodating guest; once a heartless assassin; once a member of the intelligentsia -- and always several steps ahead of his counterparts. If his performance doesn't get an Oscar nomination, expect riots.
Unfortunately, it's all downhill after the promising opening scene. We're given a quick introduction of the Basterds, Jewish-Americans recruited to kill Germans, and Tarantino acquaints us further as one of them, Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth), bashes in a few German brains. But that's pretty much it. Viewers never really see the men being very... bastardly; we get no sense of the supposed brutality they rain down on their enemies. The Basterds' leader, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt, in a great Tennessee drawl), is the supposed mind behind the operation, but again, the operation he heads is fraught with multiple holes.
Next we meet Shoshanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), whose family was murdered by Landa in the opening scene. She's inherited an art-house cinema, and quickly becomes the subject of amorous pursuits by the young Nazi war hero Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl). He chooses her cinema to debut a film trumpeting his heroic battles. Scheduled attendees: Hitler and the top Nazi brass.
Yet despite all of Tarantino's typically intricate plot weavings, character development is nowhere to be found. We never know the Basterds, Dreyfus remains a mysterious figure, and Col. Landa, the real main character of the film, is only minimally developed. By the end of the film -- almost two-and-a-half hours later -- it's hard to care much about what happens to anybody on screen. Still, to its credit, the film has some marvelous moments, not the least of which is a cameo by Mike Meyers, who plays a British intelligence officer Ed Fenech. Tarantino's masterful directing chops are on display in an incredibly long scene in a bar, where three of the Basterds and the German singing sensation Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) encounter a brutal Nazi SS officer.
Nevertheless, Inglourious Basterds felt slight. More time fleshing out characters and less time showcasing stylistic flourishes might have helped make it glorious indeed. RATING (out of 10): 6