To the layman, "Once upon a time" means "fairy tale." To the movie buff, it means "Sergio Leone" or, perhaps more generally, "spaghetti western." The new film by Quentin Tarantino is advertised on some posters and announced in its opening chapter as "Once Upon a Time in Occupied France." While the story is structured according to Tarantino's peculiar preference for breaking things down into chapters, some of the fundamental elements of the classical spaghetti remain apparent. Most obviously, there is a division of characters into good, bad and ugly as in Leone's film of that name as well as Once Upon a Time in the West. The good is Shoshanna Dreyfus aka Emmanuelle Mimieux, lone survivor of a Jewish family harbored by French dairy farmers yet brought down by the bad, "Jew Hunter" Hans Landa, in the opening chapter. Shoshanna is the story's avenger, but her prominence in the story is obscured to the point of false advertising by the emphasis given to the ugly, Aldo Raine and his band of "Basterds," in the ads for the film.
Understanding Brad Pitt's actual role in the film goes a long way toward solving the riddle of his performance. Some reviewers get it, others don't. The latter blame Pitt for clownishness, which seems unfair when Raine is meant to be a clown. He's Tuco to Melanie Laurent's Shoshanna as Blondy, though they never interact and aren't aware of each other's existence; he's also Cheyenne to her Harmonica. Pitt is meant to be crude and brutal and to be funny doing it, and he succeeds admirably. He is an unheralded comic genius, as he first intimated in his previous performance of a Tarantino script in True Romance and demonstrated again more recently in Burn After Reading. Pitt and Laurent are counterpoints as Tarantino challenges himself to juggle tragedy and comedy while the two plots play out in the same movie theater.
Basterds doesn't play entirely by spaghetti rules. Shoshanna appears less interested in avenging herself on Landa (though she assumes he'll be among her victims) than on Nazi Germany in general. That's appropriate in a war story, since war isn't supposed to be about individuals. That in turn makes adapting spaghetti formulae into a war-movie framework a tricky business. Tarantino complicates things further by making most of the well-rounded characters Germans, whether it's ambivalent war hero-turned-film star Frederick Zoller, Wilhelm the common soldier who celebrates the birth of his son in the wrong place at the wrong time, or the brave officer who defies the Basterds at the brink of death by baseball bat.
I leave Hans Landa off this list, and I confess that I find Christoph Waltz's lauded performance somewhat overrated. I suppose that's because he just doesn't match my idea of a Nazi villain. That idea allows for considerable range, but Landa seems too much like a glib Tarantino villain rather than a Nazi. I know: it's a Tarantino movie, so what's my point? My point is, that while I understand that Landa is less a Nazi than a spaghetti archetype in a German uniform, which he proves by ultimately looking out for himself rather than the Party or the Fatherland, Waltz just doesn't ring true for me in a way I feel he should. Having said that, I think he gives a fine performance as a glib Tarantino villain, and that goes a long way toward selling the twists Landa makes along the way.
Spaghetti westerns weren't known for their historical accuracy, but they also weren't known for borrowing characters from history very often. Tarantino's claim of similar if not greater creative license in the context of World War II has shocked some reviewers and provoked accusations of inappropriate frivolity or insufficient engagement with the evil of Nazism. On the other hand, I've seen at least one reviewer argue that Tarantino's license restores some of the necessary unpredictability to World War II dramas -- the sense that anything can happen identified with a certain type of thriller. With Basterds, Tarantino has made a distinctive verbal thriller. He fills the space in which suspense builds with his customary verbiage, but he's figuring out how to use his verbosity dramatically. Reviewers have made a lot of the initial scene of Landa chatting with a French farmer, but Tarantino's skill really shines in the tavern scene at the center of the film. With the grumbling title characters relegated to the basement, the celebration of the aforementioned Wilhelm and a "what's my line" type of card game share space with a crucial meeting between a British spy and a turncoat German actress, the problem being how soon to leave without attracting suspicion and how long to stay without attracting suspicion. That scene may be Tarantino's best work to date as a writer.
The final half hour of Basterds is pretty much indescribable if I don't want to spoil things for the uninitiated, but it is spectacular stuff, shocking and cathartic. Those who think there's something inherently wrong (historically speaking) with it should remember the "Once Upon a Time" sign up front and attempt to recall whether they were expecting a true story or not.
The acting: Waltz is overrated and Pitt overrated, but both are good. Laurent should be a global star, while Diane Kruger as the actress makes up for Troy. The guy who really impressed me was Til Schweiger as Hugo Stiglitz, a renegade German recruited into the Basterds. Schweiger plays his part in a perpetual slow burn that marks him as the most dangerous man in any room he enters. He does this without a lot of dialogue, which is a testament to his own talent and to Tarantino the director as opposed to the writer. At the other extreme, Mike Myers as British General Fenech makes a fortunately brief appearance that had the local art-house audience giggling just at the sight of him and the sound of his voice. Whether this was the desired effect of casting him I'm not quite sure, though I was happy to see Rod Taylor as Churchill sharing the scene with him.
I'm not quite sure yet of where to rank Basterds among Tarantino's films. It's definitely an improvement on Death Proof (which the director himself now seems to dismiss), and if I have to treat the two parts of Kill Bill as one film then I'd lean toward saying Basterds is his best work since Jackie Brown. At the same time, some aspects of his style are starting to wear on me, and for all that I liked a lot of what I heard on the soundtrack, if I had the man in a room and could make one request of him, I'd challenge him to commission an original score for a film. Tarantino remains a brilliant yet problematic filmmaker and, despite his detractors, one who's still evolving and perfecting his style and remains worth watching while he continues to do so.