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Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds Plays Cannes

by Anne Thompson
May 20, 2009 9:29 AM
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Nowhere but Cannes would 2500 media urgently assemble in one place to see a movie at 8:30 AM. As Quentin Tarantino himself said at the jam-packed Inglourious Basterds press conference, "There's no place like Cannes for filmmakers on the face of the earth. It's Cinema Nirvana during this time here on the Riviera. Cinema matters. It's important. Even when people boo --out of passion--it's not just images glazing over you. All the world film press on the planet earth, America, Finland, Iceland, Greenland, even Canada--that's a country--something about them all being here, you drop the movie--bam!--at once everyone weighs in at the same time...I'm not an American filmmaker, I make movies for the planet earth and Cannes represents that."

Well, the press did not boo Inglourious Basterds. Nor, judging from my sampling of critics afterwards, are they anointing it his best. Several wanted to think about it, to figure out what if anything, is missing. "I liked it," said one American festival programmer. "It's not his best," said one French critic. "It's cynical," said another. "The women are great," said one online woman critic.

Could anything live up to the hype? Inglourious Basterds is great fun to watch, but the movie isn't entirely engaging. And it is defiantly an art film, not a calculatedly mainstream entertainment. (Likely to score far better in Europe than anywhere else, the movie may not singlehandedly generate enough boxoffice to save The Weinstein Co.) Tarantino throws you out of the movie with titles, chapter headings, snatches of music. You don't jump into the world of the film in a participatory way; you watch it from a distance, appreciating the references and the masterful mise-en-scene. This is a film that will benefit from a second viewing. I can't wait to see it again.

"It's definitely outrageous, which I was fine for," said a diplomatic Brad Pitt. "These films don't come along very often." He applauded Tarantino for getting the movie made so efficiently, only six weeks after Pitt agreed to star. The two men had been circling each other for a time, and Tarantino was delighted to have written a Pitt-friendly role. The Weinstein Co. and partner Universal International greenlit the picture last summer, after the filmmaker finally found Christoph Waltz to play the key multi-lingual role of Col. Hans Landa. Tarantino was ready to pull the plug if he didn't find the right actor, he said. "The movie was either going to be right on or not going to be at all." (Waltz and fellow German Daniel Bruhl both kissed Tarantino after he said nice things about them.) Basterds wrapped just three months ago, winding up with a running time of two hours 27.

Tarantino set out to make a World War II genre film inspired by the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone (he splashes Ennio Morricone on the soundtrack). "I like dealing in genres, all right?" he said today. "There's westerns, war movies, musicals, swashbucklers...I always liked the sub-genre of genre...a bunch of guys on a mission."

[SPOILER ALERT]Tarantino has fashioned a parallel World War II anti-Nazi fantasy that hangs on his characters. "I am God as far as the characters are concerned," he said. "I created them." But he does not play by the rules. This is a world where anyone can get killed at any moment. The movie stirs up a mixed bag of references and knee-jerk reactions to Nazis as The Basterds, a Jewish-American army troop led by L.T. Aldo Raine (a redneck broadly rendered by Pitt), set out on a mission to collect 100 Nazi scalps, each. (Yes, we see close-up scalpings.) This aspect of the movie is given somewhat short shrift (which may disappoint Tarantino's action fans) as we move onto the central plot, to destroy the entire Nazi high command at a movie theatre in one fell swoop. In this movie, as Tarantino says, "the power of cinema brings down the Third Reich."

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Besides Col. Landa, the two best roles in the movie are played by French actress Melanie Laurent as the owner of a cinema and Diane Kruger as a German movie star not unlike Hildegard Knecht Knef. Thanks to Tarantino, said Laurent, "women can be independent in a period film."

Tarantino doesn't ask us to identify with good guys vs. bad guys, he admitted at the press conference. It's more complicated than that. For example, in an ingenious scene that introduces the members of the Basterds, a relatively honorable Nazi who refuses to collaborate with Raine, for example, gets pounded to death with a baseball bat by Sgt. Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth). At the press conference, Roth described playing that scene as "kosher porn," "like performing a sex scene."

Inglourious Basterds is necessarily episodic, separated into sequences. The first, set in the countryside of Nazi-occupied France, is genius. It's a two-hander between self-styled Jew Hunter Colonel Landa and a French farmer (Denis Menochet) seeking to protect his lovely three daughters. Inspired by the opening sequence of Heaven's Gate, this is Tarantino at his absolute best.

As for the film's badly spelled title, Tarantino refused to explain his thinking. "It's an artistic flourish," he said.

Here's Michael Fleming's pre-interview with Tarantino. And my own The Daily Beast round-up of eight movies with buzz.

Jeff Wells posted the opening of the press conference.

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