***originally written 16 August 2009***
Quentin Tarantino’s latest cartoon is a wicked and idiosyncratic romp through Nazi-occupied France. I say cartoon because that’s the mindset of the piece. It’s colourful, silly, frequently aiming for laughs, mocks realism (and history) at every turn, and – as some cartoons are able of being – occasionally unexpectedly poignant. But only occasionally. Perhaps twice.
Brad Pitt is first billed, obviously because of his star-status, but this really is an ensemble piece. Like Kill Bill it is split up into chapters, and characters weave in and out of these shorter pieces, sometimes disappearing for half an hour or more. As anyone who’s seen the trailer might have guessed, Pitt dishes out one of his hammier characters, and as such less is more. If he were in it any more than he is, he’d probably grate. The good news is that this is a Tarantino film without any serious weak-links in the cast. The man himself mercifully stays behind the camera. Even Hostel director Eli Roth, who has a starring role, manages to escape in tact. Two of the cast, newcomers to the Tarantino line-up, are especially good. Christoph Waltz provides humour, charm and sadism in equal doses as Col. Hans Landa, and doe-eyed Mélanie Laurent shines as Shosanna Dreyfus, coming across like a younger, more vulnerable version of Uma Thurman’s bride.
This is not the only nod to QT’s previous work that the film contains. Indeed, it seems as though now the man is most influenced by himself. Music cues from Kill Bill crop up here again, there are the obligatory extended dialogue exchanges, but unlike in Death Proof, they rarely seem laboured, or at all like filler. Only once does this threaten to happen during a protracted basement bar sequence in the film’s fourth chapter. Many will bemoan Basterds for being too talky, but given QT’s past two films, he shows actual restraint here, as well as far more wit than we’ve heard in his dialogue for some time. In Death Proof every character sounded like Tarantino. In Inglourious Basterds there is enough character as well to mask his trademark banter style. Other familar motifs such as split-screen and foot fetishism also get their moments.
This is not a new masterpiece though. Despite all of it’s successes it feels, as all of his films since Jackie Brown have felt, too wacky to be taken with any real seriousness. Not that it should; this is a fairytale adventure at the end of the day, albeit one in an unusual setting. But the knowing kookiness of 00s-era Tarantino feels a little too disposable to be thought of as ‘great’ film. Nevertheless, it’s very easy to be taken in by the story, probably QT’s warped idea of what passes for light-entertainment in the movie-going summer season. Even Mike Myers briefly flexing his stiff-upper-lip chops as a British army official can’t dispel the sense of guilty fun.
At the same time, it should probably be noted that this is not a braindead popcorn flick either. Over half of the film is subtitled as we transfer from French to German. Unless you’re fluent in both a lot of reading will be required of you. Make sure you don’t sit behind someone particularly tall, especially if you’re a short-arse like me. Overall though I can think of far worse ways of spending two-and-a-half hours this summer.