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How Tarantino scored his most inglourious basterd

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

Cannes, France — Five bottles of wine, a discussion about movies long into the night, and “something that resembled a smoking apparatus” – that's what it took to get Brad Pitt to agree to star in Quentin Tarantino's new Second World War movie, Inglourious Basterds. “I must have agreed to do the movie,” said Pitt. “The next thing I know I was in uniform.”

Pitt and Tarantino grinned at each like mischievous schoolboys across a table crowded with Pitt's co-stars, including Canada's Mike Myers, who adopts a clipped 1940s accent for his cameo as a British general. It was only moments after the world debut of Tarantino's new 21/2-hour film had screened to enthusiastic applause at the Cannes Film Festival, where the director was launched to international fame 15 years ago with Pulp Fiction.

Inglourious Basterds (the misspelling is all Tarantino's, and he didn't want to explain it) is a leap for the American director.

His trademark humour is in place, and there are a couple of moments when the squeamish should take a trip to the popcorn stand, but it's a more mature movie, in theme and tone, than anything he's done before.

Lieutenant Aldo Raine, played by Pitt with cornpone swagger, leads a troop of Jewish-American soldiers bent on taking Nazi scalps. Literally, that is: Each of the eight “basterds” is meant to take 100 scalps, both as a way to sow terror in enemy ranks and a means to exact a small but necessary revenge for the atrocities they know are being committed.

Eli Roth plays the baseball-bat-wielding Sergeant Donny Donowitz, the Babe Ruth of payback.

“For me, being Jewish, it's like kosher porn,” he said after the screening yesterday. “It's something I've fantasized about since I was a young child. It was like doing a sex scene when I beat that guy to death.”

Of course, it wouldn't be a Tarantino movie if it only had one linear plot. We also get the overlapping stories of the German actress turned Allied informant Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) and the young cinema owner Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), who is determined to avenge her Jewish family's death. To give away her plan would be a spoiler deserving a smack, so I won't, but let's just say it allows Tarantino to use all his love and knowledge of film to rewrite history.

“It's a metaphor about the power of cinema,” Tarantino said, “but at the same time it's literal – the power of cinema is going to bring down the Third Reich.”

Those are some big plans for what is, after all, a summer blockbuster. And will multiplex audiences be turned off by the lengthy scenes spoken in French and German? (Tarantino wisely insisted that everyone speak the language of their characters, thus avoiding the usual Second World War movie scenario where even the Nazis sound like they graduated from the Royal Shakespeare Company.) The subtitles shouldn't be a turnoff – using them and an international cast helped Tarantino make a mature movie on a more substantial canvas.

“I'm not an American filmmaker,” he said. “I make movies for the planet Earth.”

Christoph Waltz, the Austrian actor who plays the sly, multilingual SS colonel Hans Landa, should be arrested for robbery because he pockets every scene he's in. In fact, Tarantino had been about to pull the plug on the project and just publish the script because he couldn't find the right actor to pull off Landa's feline wickedness in four languages. “Then Christoph read, and I said, ‘We're making the movie.'”

Hearing this at the news conference yesterday, Waltz got up from the table, went over to Tarantino and kissed him.

The international press is less interested in a little-known Austrian actor, no matter how talented, than in the world's biggest movie star, and the screams of “Brad, Brad,” nearly deafened. Pitt was channelling Jay Gatsby in a cream suit and grey scarf, and looked benignly over at Tarantino as the director described how they'd been “sniffing around each other” for years, hoping to work together but unable to find the right project.

“You had me at hello,” Pitt said.

“I had you at bonjour,” Tarantino responded.

Then the love-in continued. More of the cast continued the joke, getting up to kiss Tarantino. The question is, will the Cannes jury feel the same? Can he recapture the lightning of 1994, when Pulp Fiction took everyone's breath away and won a Palme d'Or?

One complicating factor: Isabelle Huppert, who heads the Cannes jury, was at one point expected to appear in Inglourious Basterds, but for whatever reason – Tarantino described it as “schedules and timing-wise and deal stuff” – she isn't in the movie. Insisting there was “no acrimony,” Tarantino said he's Huppert's “biggest fan” and wants to work with her soon.

It says something about this year's Cannes festival that Inglourious Basterds is one of the less gory offerings. It's also one of the few movies that offers the welcome respite of laughter. It was a relief to hear the audience laughing yesterday – it's been pretty dark on the Croisette, despite the sun.

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