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Femme fatale fantastique

Tarantino's fairy-tale answer to the Third Reich

Posted: August 26, 2009

By D.K. Holm - For the Post | Comments (1) | Post comment

Femme fatale fantastique

Courtesy Photo

Taking her pound of flesh. Hell hath no fury like Mélanie Laurent on the hunt.

Quentin Tarantino has completed a trilogy.

If you look at the obstreperous American director's recent films, you find a trio of tales about dynamic, aggressive, vengeance-filled women: Jackie Brown, Kill Bill and now Inglourious Basterds. Each focuses on a woman who crosses swords with some evil, dominant male. Tarantino has explored their responses realistically (in Jackie Brown), in genre-film style (in Kill Bill), and historically, so to speak (in Inglourious Basterds).

Between Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino made Death Proof, a characteristically eccentric serial killer film with six to eight female leads, depending on how you count them. Maybe this run of films is in fact a quadrilogy. Or maybe Tarantino just digs tough chicks.

Either way, be advised that despite the Best Actor award at Cannes going to Christoph Waltz this year for his portrayal of the Nazi Colonel Hans Landa, and the star power lent by lead "Basterd" Brad Pitt, the main character in Tarantino's war film is really a female. Specifically, Inglourious Basterds concerns the revenge plan of a Jewish girl named Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), whose family has been slaughtered by Colonel Landa. Hiding out in a Paris movie theater a few years later, she concocts a plan to take out the whole of the German high command, Landa along with it.

Inglourious Basterds
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
With Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth, Michael Fassbender, Mike Myers, Mélanie Laurent and Daniel Brühl

In a parallel storyline, a group of Jewish soldiers led by Lieutenant Aldo "The Apache" Raine (Brad Pitt) conducts raids on German infantrymen in a bloodthirsty hunt for their scalps. A coincidence brings the Basterds and the Jewess together in simultaneous and parallel acts of war-ending vengeance.

As usual, there are numerous cinematic references in the picture, from John Wayne's The Alamo to Jack Cardiff's Dark of the Sun. These nouvelle vague salutes to Tarantino's predecessors undergird the director's own narrative strategies. Take the opening sequence, a long, slow waltz between two antagonists, Landa and a humble French farmer who is hiding a Jewish family on his property. He has three daughters - women in Tarantino's films often come in threes - and Landa offers to spare them if the farmer fesses up.

The sequence is a drawn-out homage to the better spaghetti Westerns, especially The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. But it also signals the nature of intercourse between characters for the rest of the film, which is in effect a series of meetings between someone who wants something and the person who has it, be it information, a confession, a change in legal status or access to their respective private parts.  

The sequence is also a short course on the psychology behind what makes villains villainous in film. Landa knows that the Jewish family is there - in fact, he even knows precisely where they are hiding. But the farmer thinks he can weasel out of his fate if he hews to his cover story. Landa is like a ghastly jack-in-the-box, with a grin of sympathy spread across his face as he lures the poor man to the steps of perdition. The talk is often about everything other than the matter at hand - the beauty of the farmer's daughters, the refreshing coolness of the milk he is offered - while the tension is all in the glances, the position of bodies, the geography of the farmhouse. It's the ultimate Tarantino scene, with roots in other long dances of intel-gathering found in his previous films: slow, formal and detailed, anatomizing sadism and seduction.

Inglourious Basterds is a very old-fashioned movie in a way, like an Irene Dunne comedy from the '30s, consisting of set pieces rather than the action template of modern times. It may bore some people - particularly expat audiences in Prague, where the film lacks English-language subtitles during the extensive sequences in German, French and Italian. They may enter the cinema expecting Dirty Dozen and instead get something akin to Dreyer's Gertrude.  

In any case, Tarantino has set himself the task yet again of examining the psychology of a duel between a fascinating, difficult woman and the man who is her nemesis. In this respect, he has topped his best efforts to date and created a great, if somewhat peculiar film in the process.

- D.K. Holm is the author of Quentin Tarantino (Pocket Essentials) and Kill Bill: An Unofficial Casebook (Glitter Books).

D.K. Holm can be reached at

Tags: Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino, Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Nazi.

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