The face of Jewish vengeance

(This character study is part of the Pompous Film Snob’s blog event, a myriad of character studies on the sociopaths, hookers, weirdies and more that populate Quentin Tarantino’s world of Film. Visit Frank’s blog post for the complete list.)

Trauma has a profound effect on Shoshanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent).

“When anger rises, think of the consequences.” ~~Confucius

Shoshanna Dreyfus, “Inglourious Basterds”

Anger is a dangerous emotion, one that can push people to their breaking points and beyond. But more dangerous than anger is the combination of anger and grief. Both are unpredictable at best; together, they pack enormous potential for explosion. And the longer anger and grief are repressed, the bigger the boom will be and the greater the fallout. In that respect, one story thread in Quentin Tarantino’s wildly revisionist/gloriously twisted WWII epic “Inglourious Basterds” — the story of bent-on-vengeance Jewish orphan Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent) — isn’t just splashy, lurid, violent entertainment. Shoshanna’s story is a case study (and maybe a bit of a cautionary tale, too) of how powerful repressed emotions can be.

The anger and grief that Shosana eventually feeds on to fuel her vengeful plot came to her honest. To avoid certain death in concentration camps, Shoshanna and her family fled their home and went on the run, hiding in any home that would take them. In the opening of “Inglourious Basterds,” Shoshanna’s family has found refuge underneath the floorboards of a home in France. They have learned to become good at disappearing into the scenery around them. But Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), infamously and deservedly known as “The Jew Hunter,” has tracked the family to their hiding spot and orders his subordinates to shoot. Shoshanna is the sole survivor of the bloodbath, and Landa lets her escape unscathed. He seems to understand that living is a far more effective punishment than a bullet to the back of the head. At the time all Shosana feels is fear, but years later her fear has turned into a rage that roils and churns underneath her placid, pleasant face. There are fleeting glimpses of this turmoil in her clipped, then harsh dismissals of young Nazi war hero Pvt. Zoller (Daniel Brühl), an overeager suitor who volunteers her theater as the spot for the premiere of a film about his exploits. Later, in an excruciatingly tense meeting with Landa — who probably recognizes her, but we can’t be certain; his cool stare belies everything and nothing — and Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) himself, she barely conceals her anxiety, then breaks down the moment Landa leaves the table. Laurent’s control in this pivotal scene is plain remarkable. The Jew Hunter’s sudden reappearance stirs up long-buried emotions and hammers a thin crack in her façade. That one small fissure is all it takes to for the anger and the grief to bubble their way up to the surface.

This is a film just for the Nazis.

When those feelings resurface, it doesn’t take long for Shosanna to shape them into a vengeful plot to end all plots. In a way, the same man who took away her power gives it back to her. The anger, the need for revenge, trumps the fear. The same woman who cowered in that café, the very picture of meekness, has become the quiet leader of la résistance. Shoshanna’s wrath spurs her to action, and the damage, intentional and collateral, is steep. She replaces her silence with a battle cry: “You are all going to die. And I want you to look deep into the face of the Jew that is going to do it!” At the end it’s less about taking down her family’s killer as it making every living Nazi feel her wrath.

That’s not to suggest that Tarantino fancies himself a shrink; probably he gets off on watching chicks kick ass and take names. This is a director lambasted by feminists for his macho, shootout-heavy films. Still, the fact is that script for script, Tarantino writes women scorned like nobody else in the business. With every film, the women unleash more and more hell. He got off to a rollicking start with Alabama (Patricia Arquette), the tough-as-nails prostitute who delivers a brutal lashing to the goon who’s hunted her down. The Bride/Beatrix Kiddo (Uma Thurman), heroine of the “Kill Bill” films, dispatched every assassin who had a hand in her near-fatal shooting, including her mentor and lover. In 2009, Tarantino wrote his strongest character yet: a diminutive, delicate-looking woman who did her part and then some to give World War II the ending it should have had. She identified herself, to the Nazi glitterati trapped in the burning theater, being pelted with gunfire, as the face of Jewish vengeance. It is not a face — or a character — anyone will soon forget.

Pipe-measuring contest

Pompous Film Snob has been bitten by the blog event bug — warning! alliteration overload! — of late and has invited a host of us work-for-peanuts movie nutters to participate. The topic, I’m sure you’ll agree, is a lil beaut: Pick your favorite character (major, minor, etc.) from a Quentin Tarantino film (“True Romance” and “From Dusk Till Dawn” included) and do a character study.

(Hey, PFS, do you think you could have posed a more difficult question for Tarantino groupies?)

Pop by Frank’s blog next week — actual posting date TBA — to see if your favorite character made the cut and to find out what makes him or her tick. This blogger will be deconstructing the pathology of an “Inglourious Basterds” main player, but not the one you’d expect.

The face of Jewish vengeance wears red lipstick.

Oscar snubs its nose at you, Matt Damon (et. al)

"What do you mean I didn't get an Oscar nomination? I gained 40 POUNDS!"

Every year begins with the same blasted vow: I won’t wear my heart on my sleeve. I won’t get sucked in. I’ll be strong and aloof. In short, I swear I won’t let myself get emotionally involved in the Oscar race.

PFFFFFFT. Go on. Now pull the other one.

Yeah, so that never happens. Never comes close to happening. It’s all gibberish. Maybe my real resolution should be that one of these days I might flush all these delusions of keeping my heart out of the Oscar race down le porcelain bowl … but it won’t be this year! Especially not this year, when the Best Picture race got expanded to 10 (what a nice, big, fat round number, no?), a sure signal that the Academy had opened its ranks to deserving films that, before, never would have had a chance.

While that may be true (say what you want about “Avatar,” but rare is the blockbuster that crashes the Best Picture ball), in true Academy fashion these snobbish cats have doled out some fairly glaring and some just-plain-wrong snubs. They are as follows:

Best Picture / “Star Trek,” “Two Lovers” — Mental gymnastics are required to reason out why “Avatar,” with its amazing visuals and so-so storyline, merited an Oscar nod while “Star Trek” did not. J.J. Abrams’ energetic, heartfelt summer blockbuster is nothing short of a total reinvention. Thrilling action, special effects, wit, verve, inside jokes, great acting — “Star Trek” has them all in spades. James Gray’s “Two Lovers takes what could have been a Lifetime TV movie — an aimless, emotionally damaged man (Joaquin Phoenix) torn between two women — and turns it into a nuanced character study with almost no melodrama, and a very fine motion picture deserving of some statues.

Best Actor / Damon, Maguire, Phoenix — Oh, the triple negligence the Academy has perpetrated in this, its 82nd awards season. First is their thoughtless brush-aside of Matt Damon, who comically and painfully captured the disordered mind of whistleblower Mark Whitacre in Stephen Soderbergh’s deceptively jaunty “The Informant!” (His acting there was better than “Invictus.”) Second was the blatant disregard of Tobey Maguire’s blistering portrayal of a POW so ruined by war that he cannot reclaim his family and life in “Brothers.” Last but for certainly not least is the absence of Joaquin Phoenix’s name, which is a travesty considering his troubled Leonard Kraditor in “Two Lovers” may be the most haunting, commendable piece of acting he’s ever done.

Best Actress / Abbie Cornish — In the Focus Features 2006 film “Candy,” Abbie Cornish gave us a glimpse of her blossoming talent, but in “Bright Star,”* about Romantic poet John Keat’s short-lived, passionate romance with Fanny Brawne, she emerges fully formed. She gives beaming vitality, spirit and life to one of poetry’s greatest-known muses, and for that she deserves much, much acclaim. Why, Academy, do you insist on withholding the love?

Best Supporting Actress / Laurent, Rossellini — Considering the hot, exhilarating mess of a spectacle that is “Inglourious Basterds”, perhaps it’s inevitable that someone would get lost in the mix. That someone, however, should not be Parisian actress Mélanie Laurent, for her Shosanna is the emotional center of the film; her outstanding one-on-one with Waltz in the cafe should have cemented that award. Isabella Rossellini, who plays Leonard’s worried mother in “Two Lovers,” is no less subtle or devastating. Her quiet performance is a thing of beauty, and it’s the crowning achievement of a career that hasn’t had that many. 

Best Original Screenplay / “The Brothers Bloom” — Rian Johnson is the man who gave us “Brick,” that outrageously stylish mix of gumshoe talk and teen hormones. And now this, a wildly twisty dramedy about two conmen brothers — one wants out; the other turns long cons into art — and the rich, innocent mark they’re about to bilk out of millions. Is it arty, maybe a bit too arch and complex? Maybe. Does it possess the kind of fiendish cleverness and originality Hollywood sorely lacks? Abso-damn-lutely.

Best Original Song / “Stu’s Song” — I’m not about to argue that “Stu’s Song,” hilariously performed by Ed Helms in “The Hangover,” is overflowing with the emotional depth of, say, “The Weary Kind” or has the glitter-and-sequins of “Take It All.” But it’s still an tremendously funny tune that manages to be clever and neatly sum up what “The Hangover” is all about. And that last line is PRICELESS.

*Review forthcoming

Top 10 actors/actresses of 2009

How many blog comments, I wonder, have inspired whole posts?

I don’t have an answer to that question, but the ever-astute Encore Entertainment posed a difficult but interesting question: Who gave the best performances, the ones that would top my list of favorites for the year?

Now that’s a thinker … but one that only lasted about six minutes. Then in marched the answers, and I present them to you thusly:

The ladies

Mo'Nique's blistering turn in "Precious" deserves to be called the best of the year.

  1. Mo’Nique, “Precious”
  2. Abbie Cornish, “Bright Star”
  3. Gabourey Sidibe, “Precious”
  4. Melanie Laurent, “Inglourious Basterds” 
  5. Vera Farmiga, “Up in the Air”
  6. Melanie Lynskey, “The Informant!” 
  7. Isabella Rossellini, “Two Lovers”
  8. Vinessa Shaw, “Two Lovers”
  9. Charlyne Yi, “Paper Heart”
  10. Meryl Streep, “Julie & Julia”

The fellows

Christoph Waltz creates the perfect villain in "Inglourious Basterds."

  1. Christoph Waltz, “Inglourious Basterds”
  2. Adam Sandler, “Funny People”
  3. George Clooney, “Up in the Air”
  4. Matt Damon, “The Informant!”
  5. Tobey Maguire, “Brothers”
  6. Joaquin Phoenix, “Two Lovers”
  7. Paul Schneider, “Bright Star”
  8. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “(500) Days of Summer”
  9. Mark Ruffalo, “The Brothers Bloom”
  10. Zachary Quinto, “Star Trek”

Readers, which actors and actresses delivered the year’s best performances? Let’s hear your picks.

“Inglourious Basterds” a complex, gloriously twisted epic

A devil of a dealmaster: Christoph Waltz is a villain for the ages in "Inglourious Basterds."

A devil of a dealmaster: Christoph Waltz is a villain for the ages in "Inglourious Basterds."

Enthusiastic but not too bright, Sgt. Donny “The Bear Jew” Donowitz (Eli Roth) has a simple plan for killing the gaggle of Nazi glitterati gathered in a Parisian movie theater to see the latest propaganda film: “We punch those goons out, take their machine guns, and burst in there blasting!” My, how I do love a director who goes to the trouble to bury his movie-making philosophy in one line of dialogue. That Tarantino, always thinking three steps ahead, waiting to see who gets the joke, then kicking us in the teeth for thinking he’d make a movie that simple.

Yes, do not mistake ”Inglourious Basterds” for a bloody, unflinchingly tense, grandiose World War II shoot-’em-up even though that’s exactly what it is. (Attempting to keep track of the bodies could induce seizures.) But Tarantino’s tendency to hide things — on-purpose mistakes, inside jokes, trademarks, cameos cleverly hidden in makeup (is that Austin Powers?) or through voiceover narration – means things are not what they seem.  There are other elements at play that make “Inglourious Basterds” a big, complicated, layered, overblown and tremendously satisfying affair, including the crackin’-funny dialogue (re: “Say ‘auf Widersehen’ to your Nazi balls!”), the sight gags (note the pipe-measuring contest in the movie’s opening) and one hell of a viciously delightful villain in the form of Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, who snatches every scene).

Come to think of it, even the plot isn’t simple. It doubles, sometimes triples back on itself, and it’s got corrosive irony and “would you look at that?” coincidences practically dripping from every frame. Best to start with the overarching story, which involves the Basterds, a ragtag group of Nazi killers led by Lt. Aldo Raine (a scenery-munching Brad Pitt), a Tennessee good ole’ boy with a thick scar banding his throat and a fondness for Nazi scalps. Lots and lots of Nazi scalps. He and the Basterds — including Donowitz, Pfc. Smithson “Little Man” Utivich (B.J. Novak) and Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz (a mute, menacing Til Schweiger), a German who turned on his fellow Nazi soldiers – are in the business of killing Hitler’s henchmen in Nazi-occupied France. There’s another, more emotionally powerful story involving Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), a Jew hell-bent on avenging the death of her family. A German marksman’s (Daniel Brühl) boyish crush on her leads to an unexpected opportunity when Shosanna’s theater becomes the locale for the premiere of Joseph Goebbel’s (Sylvester Groth) newest propaganda film. To say this leads to a “the plot thickens” moment would be the understatement of the century. Plots don’t get much denser.

Now let’s hush this talk of storylines – It would take hours to unravel all of those. Time to spill some ink on how all those elements meld. In true Tarantino fashion, not all of them do. For example, the music, timed perfectly for poetic death scenes and burn-it-down destruction, is spot-on. But except for Roth, Pitt, Novak and Schweiger (damn, I love that guy), the Basterds are largely anonymous. We know nothing about them, get no clues as to why they joined up in this murderous tomfoolery, and so their story feels disappointingly undeveloped. The same goes for Shoshanna — no development there. Laurent’s a French actress of formidable talent who gives Shosanna a lot of simmering rage, but the character’s still a total mystery to us. It’s as if her story is simply collateral damage, a regrettable casualty to be expected in a movie like “Inglourious Basterds” where Tarantino tries to accomplish so much.

But the characters we do get to know? What impressions they make. We get the likes of Donowitz, a wild-eyed totally unhinged oaf with “Anne Frank” carved into his Louisville slugger, and Pitt, who has a ball going whole-ham as Aldo Raine, a mountain boy redneck whose white-trash accent belies his cunning and wit. (He whips out quips like ”We got a German here who wants to die for his country! Oblige him.” without breaking a sweat.) The real prize here, though, is the Vienna-born Christoph Waltz, who runs away with the entire blasted movie. Tarantino may have gone and created one of cinema’s greatest villains in Col. Hans Landa, a smooth talker with an uncanny ability to read people, discover their weaknesses, exploit them and have a hearty chuckle in the process. He mocks, he sneers, he jokes, he lays traps and delights in watching the dumb (everyone’s dumber than he is) fall in them – there’s a bit of a showman in him.

Is it me, or does that sound a whole lot like some mad-genius director I know? And maybe his newest movie, too?
 
Grade: A-