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Cannes '09 Day 8: Basterds for breakfast

Posted by Wesley Morris  May 20, 2009 05:58 AM

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After a week at the world’s greatest film festival, you start to dread the finish line as much you begin to crave it. Even a mediocre movie here is unlike the average mediocre movie. You also start to understand that you are not the same person you were when you got here. I’m hairier and punchier now. When I got here, I spoke two languages (one only passably). Now at the press conferences, I feel like I understand them all.

Also: If you cut me open now, I would bleed Nespresso and whole milk. This is to say that I was caffeinated enough to spend the morning watching Jewish soldiers scalp Nazis for Brad Pitt. Yes, the world got to see “Inglourious Basterds,” the new, hard-to-classify Quentin Tarantino film. But to quote from the post-screening press conference, Boston's own, the horror director Eli Roth, who in the movie beats Germans with a bat while shrieking about Ted Williams and Lansdowne Street: it’s 160 minutes of “Kosher porn.”

There was a certain excitement walking into the Palais to see it this morning. People were moving faster up the red-carpet steps than they have all week. Inside, there was a certain panic. They were moving faster for a reason. The 8:30 screenings are always full but not until 5 to 10 minutes before. Even for the Almodovar yesterday, there were free seats at 8:20 and a sense of calm. I arrived at 8:15, and the theater doors had already been shut.

After a lot of desperate shoving (people really need their Tarantino), some of us were allowed in. The house was, indeed, packed. The lights dimmed, and people started cheering (the first time this year). More than two hours later, the lights returned, and some of the audience hooted some more. I hooted on the inside, but the movie is something to be reckoned with as much as it to be purely enjoyed – and there is a lot to enjoy. But the movie is divided into five energetic chapters that fail to produce a superb book .

Titled absurdly, presumably, to pay homage to and not be confused with Enzo G. Castellari's 1978 movie of the same, properly spelled name, “Inglourious Basterds” is set in occupied Paris, though a much less solemn one than what I saw Robert Guédiguian’s “Army of Crime,” which premiered here a few days ago. The plot basically revolves around a vengeful young Jewish farm girl (Mélanie Laurent, excellent) whose family is slaughtered by Nazis, and an Army squad of killer American Jews are out for blood (and scalps).

There's a British soldier who’s also a film critic; a German sharpshooter turned Nazi matinee idol; appearances by Goebbels and Hitler; some light but pointed jabs at Goebbels's film productions and Leni Riefenstahl’s moviemaking; a very good Christoph Waltz as a suave Nazi colonel, and a grisly climax in which all the avenues of plot lead to one 300-seat movie house. It’s as talky as the talkiest films in the competition, but Tarantino composes great comedic dialogue that lasts the entire film. His sense of tone is as good as ever. And a few of the characters are as memorable as some of the sequences.

The movie manages to emancipate itself from the obligations of history by making up its own. But despite that revisionist final chapter, which is as funny as it is ghastly, out of its mind, and not not a bit propagandadistic. Tarantino never cuts totally loose. Not many directors can keep intact a story with as many digressions, footnotes, and curlicues as Tarantino does. But the element of surprise never overtook me – despite the finale’s being something of a shock. The characters tell us what they intend to do, and Tarantino carries it out.

Watching them do it is hardly dull or even predictable, and there’s a certain excitement about the reverent glee Tarantino has for movies and, in this wishful case, for their power to exterminate evil. What the movie doesn’t have is Tarantino’s usual joyful transcendence. He’s working with a large canvas here, and I think the scope of a war film doesn’t entirely jibe with the kind of intimate violence he’s so good at staging but never bothers with here. It's odd to say, but bloodbaths and mass slaughter don't become him. He's not just projecting to the back of the house, he's burning it down.

Even at 160 minutes, the film feels rushed. As it stands, Tarantino has turned off the pot before it’s fully come to a boil. And it’s not as if, in the bargain, he’s incorporated some newfound tastefulness or humanity in the process, although life-size emotion flickers in the film’s first act. What we have is something that feels new – a spaghetti war movie. What I hoped for, though, was something special. My brain wants to cheer, but my heart won’t let me.

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6 comments so far...
  1. Ever try proof-reading before publishing?

    Posted by bonhomey May 20, 09 11:28 AM
  1. Hello Wesley - question about the length of the flick (160 minutes!) - any chance Quentin will edit this thing to under 2 hrs by the time it's officially released, or is it a finished product now?


    Posted by flightjkt May 20, 09 01:25 PM
  1. bonhomey wrote: "Ever try proof-reading before publishing?"

    Wesley is blogging, not writing a polished piece.

    Posted by Milo Blankenstern May 20, 09 02:07 PM
  1. How does this "film critic" still have a job?

    another example of how awful the globe has become

    Posted by BillCosby May 20, 09 02:43 PM
  1. I know it's only a blog post, but this piece borders on unreadable. So many missing words...

    Posted by jonathan May 20, 09 03:17 PM
  1. bonhomey:

    Ever try proofreading? I do see where you're coming from, however.

    Posted by rethinking May 20, 09 04:21 PM

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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