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Inglourious Basterds (18)

Nazi hunters mix with cinema buffs in a return to form for Tarantino

In the spirit of the misspelled title of Quentin Tarantino's new movie, let me say that Inglourious Basterds represents a bog improvement for this variable film-mucker. It may even be considered a return to farm following his last picture, Death Proof, which was frunkly a load of crop.

Tarantino has refused to explain his reasons for contributing to the decline in literacy standards. My theory is that the title mirrors the film itself in flouting the official line. Either that, or he's trying to make the veins in Lynne Truss's temple throb. The film is a Second World War shaggy-dog story that doesn't let a small matter like history stand in the way of camp entertainment or schlock poetry. The giveaway lies in the first words on screen: "Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France" is a phrase with overtones of both spaghetti western and fairy tale, and the picture indeed features a perverse twist on the Cinderella story when a woman is required to slip her foot into a discarded shoe. If it fits, she won't be marrying a prince. She won't be marrying anyone.

The picture hinges on a wish-fulfilment fantasy. What if a couple of French cinephiles and a Jewish-American military unit ("the Basterds") dedicated to scalping Nazis had between them brought about a quicker end to the war using explosives and a heap of highly flammable film stock? As befits a story that presents a parallel version of reality, everyone is either doubling up or in disguise. Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) has started a new life running a cinema in 1940s Paris after the slaughter of her Jewish family. Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), who has been wooing her, is a German sniper-turned-actor. Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) is a forces' sweetheart moonlighting as a spy for the Allies. And Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) is a British commando, complete with "pip-pip" accent and lockjawed laugh, who laboured
at the coalface of film criticism during peacetime.

Is Tarantino buttering up film critics by suggesting that our acts of heroism might extend to more than watching Guy Ritchie's latest flick or enduring the director's cut of Dances With Wolves? Only if he is also brown-nosing his Gallic admirers by having Shosanna proudly declare: "I'm French. We respect directors in our country." (That's a "yes", then.)

Tarantino's reputation was built on snazzy violence and firecracker dialogue, though explicit bloodshed is encouragingly thin on the ground here. The Basterds' brutality is mostly relegated to brief flashbacks and montages, with only one sequence forcing us to confront their cruelty in the present tense. They are also the most underdeveloped characters here. It takes some nerve to cast Brad Pitt as the Basterds' leader, Lieutenant Aldo Raine, and then give him nothing braver to do than impersonate an Italian. Pitt has an impressive repertoire of tough-guy grimaces, but he must know that facial expressions are no substitute for characterisation.

In the absence of a conventional lead, it is Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), known as “the Jew Hunter", who dominates the picture. It has been a problem in the past that Tarantino's voice could be heard in the lines he wrote, but the mesmerising Waltz takes that gleeful relish of language and presents it as a vital aspect of Landa's professional pride. He could literally torture you with etiquette; his interrogation of a French farmer is so painfully extended by bureaucratic formalities that you would confess to anything if it stilled his wily tongue.

The delight we take in Landa creates an odd imbalance in the film: it's laughable when he finally comes face to face with Aldo, so clearly is the American his inferior in intellect as well as entertainment value. The story doesn't even pretend otherwise. "I know this is a stupid question," says Bridget, "but do you Americans speak any other language except English?"

As it happens, Inglourious Basterds offers the considerable pleasure of foreign characters conversing in their mother tongues, rather than in accented English, in contrast to other recent films such as The Reader. "Quentin Tarantino In 'More Authentic Than David Hare' Shock!" is not a headline that would have sounded plausible until now, just as it seemed unlikely that the berserk climax of Inglourious Basterds would be more complex and satisfying than anything in that more earnest work. Then again, if Tarantino had been in Hare's shoes, there is every chance we would have ended up with a film called Da Reedah.

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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Is Google Evil?