There are some films that I struggle with, that I so ache over trying to form some sort of reaction. Throughout the day we saw it, my girlfriend kept bugging me to tell her what I thought of Inglourious Basterds, and I just had no god damn idea. I mean, I know it’s a masterpiece, but why? I mean, aside from Tarantino’s nigh-immaculate construction of the film – not quite on the level of Kill Bill in aesthetic terms, but there are shots and sequences that are the best thing Tarantino’s ever done - I struggled with what was really at the heart of this film. I still do. I believe this is one of the key components in great art.
And make no mistake…this is the best thing Tarantino’s ever done. Hands down. While it may not feel as immediately fresh or revolutionary as Pulp Fiction (a film which doesn’t seem nearly as fresh once you’ve seen some Jean-Luc Godard, nor as revolutionary when you consider how many shitty films that revolution spawned, or that it ushered in this awful era of irony we’ve been living under for fifteen years now), there is far more going on in Inglourious Basterds in its very essence than anything Tarantino has crafted, or in any film I’ve seen so far this year. I put up a Facebook note fairly quickly after seeing the film noting this as the most important, artistically satisfying American film of the year, but at this point I’m ready, willing, and able to take away the “American” qualification, for this film is an absolute masterpiece, the most fully-formed, artistically satisfying film since Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Not the best film of the year quite, but a tremendous accomplishment on every conceivable level.
One could look at the absolutely delightful array of characters Tarantino and his actors created, which run the gamut from the rather annoying (thankfully confined to Eli Roth’s compensation of a performance) to the one-dimensionally hilarious (Brad Pitt doing work with as little depth and as much entertainment value as Burn After Reading) to the downright classic. Malanie Laurent, Diane Kruger, Michael Fassbender, and Christoph Waltz star in roles so unique and so absolutely imbued with life they seem to have been destined for these people.
While a great many people rightfully champion Waltz’s gentlemen detective, one of the most fascinating characters in cinematic history, it’s Laurent who had me absolutely enthralled. Waltz has the most to do, and does the most with it, but when one considers that nearly everything Laurent says is a lie, while consistently conveying the truth within those lies, and the full character crafted on this canvas…her work is nothing short of a defining screen performance, far and away the best female performance of the year.
One could look at the aesthetics, though there is where I have the greatest quibbles. Tarantino’s eye remains as fine as ever in terms of set-ups, but there are far too many unnecessary cuts, some that appear to be cutting around a problematic shot rather than committing to getting it right.
But I am absolutely fascinated, riveted, and stunned with this film in terms of structure and subversion of genre. Here is a two-hour, forty-minute film with sixteen proper scenes. SIXTEEN. A few years ago I was told that a typical studio script reader would throw out a screenplay if the location doesn’t change every page and a half. The first scene of the film takes place in one location for twenty minutes, and those twenty minutes are better, and more exciting, in and of themselves, than any twenty-minute section of any other film this year. And you know what, there’s another twenty-minute scene in one location later in the film that’s just as good as the first.
This is because in spite of repeatedly having scenes that go on for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes, Tarantino has crafted a film in which every second counts. Characters may be hanging out and shooting the shit as he’s had them do for nearly two decades now, but this time there’s something at stake in every moment – even before the audience knows why tension exists, tension is a quite tangible presence. Every word has been crafted not just to a poetic end, but to the benefit of the story and its narrative might. Inglourious Basterds matters in its every breath in a way that contemporary cinema almost never does in its whole.
It’s strange to think that in spite of creating a fictional landscape around a historic event (another critic, I can’t remember who, noted that World War II here is about as real as the Cold War was in Red Dawn), Inglourious Basterds is one of the most important films about the nature of the Second World War. Past films have looked at it with admiration for the soldiers and intention of retaliation (Savign Private Ryan, Peal Harbor, and Flags of Our Fathers, to different ends), as existential human struggle (The Thin Red Line), and righteousness in the face of tremendous evil (Schindler's List).
Inglourious Basterds, without once showing a battlefield or creating more than a few ounces of emotional attachment to its characters, cuts to the core of World War II – the revenge fantasy from the American side, a quest for world domination from the Germans, a royal pain in the ass to the French during Nazi occupation, an absolute insane horror to the Jews, and all around, as Mick LaSalle noted, maybe the worst thing that has ever happened. Oh, and Tarantino manages to speak to the role films played as propaganda, whilst creating some of his own. Consider the Germans’ reaction to the climactic screening of a pro-Nazi war film alongside the audience’s reaction to the titular Basterds absolutely decimating every Nazi they come into contact with. Moreover, consider that the film’s success at the box office was due to an ad campaign that promised hours of American soldiers slaughtering German soldiers. In a way he never did before, Tarantino makes the violence matter, and a discerning audience member will recognize that. The rest will wonder why the hell we’re spending so much time with this French chick.
For those who dismiss the film on moral or factual grounds, I insist they have little concept of what Tarantinos aims are with that uncertain morality, and that they still have not figured out that narrative films are a fictional art form. The extent to which history plays into them is only our knowledge of it, and our capacity to see the subversion within. Tarantino has proved himself as an artist at least once, and this, as a main character states in the film, is his masterpiece.