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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Unsung Performances: Melanie Laurent, Inglorious Basterds

Melanie Laurent's performance in Inglorious Basterds occupies that ambiguous place between "lead" and "supporting" that so often causes frustration at Oscar time. Given that her Shoshanna Dreyfus is the heart of the film, the character around whom the rest of the narrative is built, it feels natural to consider her the lead character. On the other hand, her somewhat limited screen time means that you might justifiably consider it a supporting performance. She was campaigned (properly, I think) as lead but given how tight last year's lead actress race was and how open the supporting category, this would have been one instance when I would have been quite happy to see a bit of category jockeying.

As Shoshanna, Laurent is tasked with grounding Inglorious Basterds, acting as a counterbalance to Brad Pitt's delightfully hammy Lt. Aldo Raine and Christoph Waltz's charmingly psychotic Col. Hans Landa. Those two characters, though well-played, are larger than life and just a little over-the-top. By contrast, Shoshanna is a much more human and identifiable character. The mission that Raine and his Basterds are carrying out drives much of the narrative, but Shoshanna is the story's true hero figure, the one whose success we root for hardest.

As I said at the top, her screen time here is fairly limited but when she does appear, it makes an incredible impact. There are a couple of key scenes that really demonstrate Laurent's skill as an actress: the first is the dining room scene in which Shoshanna comes face-to-face with Landa, the man who slaughtered her family but allowed her to escape. There is a sense that Landa is toying with her (credit for the success of this scene is obviously shared with the magnificent Waltz) but Shoshanna maintains her composure... right up until the second after Landa walks away. Her quick, intense collapse - a mixture of relief and fear - feels very real and mirrors the emotions of the audience watching her.

The other key scenes takes place towards the end and unfold concurrently. One is her pre-recorded speech to the gathered Nazi bigwigs when she declares herself "the face of Jewish vengeance." It's bittersweet because of course we know that her plan to exact revenge will also cost her her life, but Laurent sells that speech so thoroughly that you really can't think of it as anything but an absolute triumph. Meanwhile, up in the projection room, Shoshanna has to deal with an unwanted guest, making it necessary for Laurent to make a quick transition from playing Shoshanna to playing Shoshanna adopting a persona, flirting and seducing in order to distract Zoller and then take him out. When she dies in the process (killed by Zoller rather than in the explosion, as she'd planned), it provides the film with its emotional highpoint.

As Shoshanna, Laurent provides Inglorious Basterds with an emotional center that helps elevate it beyond cartoony violence and slick dialogue (not that those aren't enjoyable, just that those alone don't make a movie great). Laurent's performance is nuanced and incredibly skilled, making Shoshanna a character who resonates despite her minimal screen time.

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