UK Film Review: Inglourious Basterds

Starring: Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz
Director: Quentin Tarantino

World War II set Inglourious Basterds is Quentin Tarantino’s first ‘period film’ as such. It is an occasionally taxing two and half hours, not for the easily distracted. Though judging by Tarantino’s appreciation of how costume (military or otherwise) defined this brutal time, maybe he should revisit history’s atrocities more often.

Via costume designer Anna B. Sheppard, Tarantino has deftly employed uniform to suggest a threatening presence in his antagonists.

For the film’s first act, or chapter, SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) visits the home of a French farmer and his three daughters he suspects of harbouring Jews. Landa sits, invited, in the farmer’s house drinking milk, minding his manners and generally being the all round perfect guest (Waltz is staggeringly effective at the calm menace this part requires).

As Landa segues from one leading question to another he invokes moments of intermittent silence, waiting patiently for the farmer to answer. During these moments the thick leather of his full-length overcoat creaks and chafes; Landa has the farmer in a metaphorical thumbscrew, tightening it each time he speaks. Even puffing on a comically large Calabash pipe he still cuts an intimidating figure. Landa uses his uniform – the symbolic fear it evokes – to terrify those under integration into giving him what he wants. This nail biting, ultimately tragic opener is one of the best scenes in the movie.

Inglourious Basterds is a testing film. Much of the dialogue outstays its natural welcome and the sudden tonal switches between violence and broad comedy can be unsettling. Though a seemingly unwieldy mix of genres interspersed with near-conversational discourse is now established as a Tarantino trademark. It is what makes the Tarantino experience so satisfying, yet still so unpredictable.

The narrative spans 1941-44, set almost entirely in German occupied France. Despite the Basterds being marketed as the main protagonists they make only fleeting appearances in the overall story. As an ensemble piece it brings together a handful of mini-plots to a semi-connected finale at a movie theatre where Hitler is attending a premiere.

As evident by the preposterousness of the final chapter, Inglourious Basterds is not intended as historically accurate. The aforementioned costumes however are entirely in tune with the era – if a little flamboyant. In creating his own unique vision, Tarantino wisely retained a semblance of what we as an audience expect to see. The costume indicators of period are subtle, but telltale.

In the first few seconds of screen time we see a cinch-back buckle (martingale) on worker pants; common up to around the mid-1940s, also on waist overalls. In chapter three Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) the hunted Jewish girl forced to flee as her family are gunned down by Landa’s troops, also wears pants while working outside her cinema (it is Shosanna’s revenge motive that sets up the final act).

Trousers were worn by both sexes during World War II. Generally these would be men’s trousers; due to material shortages through rationing, a woman would sometimes re-tailor her serving husband’s trousers to fit. Shosanna’s wild fiery-red tiered dress with square neckline and pointed cuff detail worn for the finale brings a deadly touch of lustre (black veil, a touch of death). An Elsa Schiaparelli inspired Siren Suit worn earlier intones a more masculine glamour.

For her introduction as German film actress/double agent Bridget von Hammersmark, Diane Kruger dons a boxy brown two piece suit, which is probably the most obviously forties outfit in the whole film. Broad shouldered, belted, pointed lapelled jacket and narrow skirt with front and back wedge pleats – it is beautiful tailoring.

This film boasts sparkling performances all round, with Waltz and Kruger shining brightest. If Eli Roth as ‘avenging golum’ Basterd ‘The Bear Jew’ over-eggs his madness it is only to counter anticipation. The Bear Jew implies a hulking, enigmatic character – a brooding monster. What we get is an OTT lunatic who breathes only to kill Nazis. The director is playing with audience expectation again, refusing to conform to type.

In not just costume but really in every possible way, Inglourious Basterds emerges as Quentin Tarantino’s most polished work to date. A trying, sometimes ground-breaking exploration into what it means to tell a story with no rules.

© 2009 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.