In the first year of the German occupation of France, Shosanna Dreyfus witnesses the execution of her family at the hand of Nazi Colonel Hans Landa. Shosanna narrowly escapes and flees to Paris, where she forges a new identity as the owner and operator of a cinema. Elsewhere in Europe, Lieutenant Aldo Raine organizes a group of Jewish American soldiers to perform swift, shocking acts of retribution. Later known to their enemy as "The Basterds", Raine’s squad joins German actress and undercover agent Bridget Von Hammersmark on a mission to take down the leaders of The Third Reich. Fates converge under a cinema marquee, where Shosanna is poised to carry out a revenge plan of her own...

The sum of the parts does not add up to a satisfying whole.

CANNES: Loosely based on Enzo Castellari’s 1978 World war II drama, Inglourious Basterds is certainly inventive and genre-subversive. It is filled with flashes of brilliance, particularly in its homages to cinema cherished by Tarantino (western, European classic) and some outstanding performances such as Austrian-born German stage, TV and movie thesp, Christoph Waltz, as charming menacing villain, SS Nazi Colonel Landa, without whom Tarantino has admitted he would not have made the film.

There are some brilliant scenes: the lengthy 20-minute opening with Landa’s arrival at a French farm-house to scour for hidden Jews, another when Pitt and three accomplices assume Italian identities. Production values, cinematography and soundtrack are very impressive. But the sum of the parts does not add up to a satisfying whole.

Certainly the critics here at Cannes are as divided about Tarantino’s movie as they are about Von Trier’s Antichrist, much of it along gender and generational lines. Opinions run the full gamut: from 'brilliant fable’ to 'armour-plated turkey’. Basic word-of-mouth research confirms youthful males as the movie’s most ardent fans, its graphic, gory violence (in scenes such as the descalping of Germans) turning off even violence-immune female critics.

One of the film’s key problems at this stage is length. At almost three hours (2 hrs 40 mins, though here it played for the press at 152 mins) its momentum is cumbersome; the excess a likely result of self-indulgence and excessive passion. After a gestation of several years, Tarantino was probably too close to the project to be objective about drastic cuts and dramaturgical flaws. But with the US release scheduled for late August, this problem is neither irreversible nor insurmountable.

It’s not a question of pure length, though. A more crucial problem is tonal and structural unevenness. Tarantino
divides the movie into five chapters, each intentionally with a
different look, ambience and tone. And whilst he pulls it off in the
first, a semblance of spaghetti western with World War II iconography,
the mix in later chapters creates a scrambling overload, lacking in
narrative and tonal unity.

The mix of real and fictitious, factual and surreal, droll and melodramatic, spoof and slapstick, special effects and graphic gore horror, does not always work.

As a passionate cinephile Tarantino overloads the movie with allusions to his favourite movies and he parades them indulgently – and often repetitively – like a kid in a candy shop.

The blur of genres and languages in this dialogue-driven movie can be distracting, particularly with much of the movie spoken and subtitled in French and German. Brad Pitt’s broad Tennessee southern drawl could use some subtitling, too, particularly in territories where English as a second language viewers prevail.

Performances vary, and whilst Pitt, as leader of the American renegades injects star-power and was the first actor hired, tends to be frozen in one-dimensional expression for much of the movie.

The European cast are kept busy but some performances are over the top (Martin Wuttke’s Hitler for starters) others lack the space to create their own impact. Goodbye Lenin’s vibrant Dan Bruhl does not have sufficient room to move to display his talents as an enamoured Nazi officer.

Tarantino’s passion, along with Pitt casting, are likely to be the film’s locomotives. Diehard Tarantino fans will rally. There’s intermittent fun but without strong narrative tension, not everyone will want to stay on board.

* * * (3 Stars)