This year, there was a before- and an after-Tarantino Cannes Festival. Quentin Tarantino’s new film “Once upon a time in Hollywood” was the marker. And it was also the most anticipated film of the 2019 festival. What a party! There is no other American auteur who can command the kinds of huge crowds like the ones seen yesterday in Cannes, when he and the cast walked the red carpet. The Croisette was on fire! (and the day after the screening felt a bit like a coming down).
And yet “Once Upon a time in Hollywood was not the best film this year (the competition was stiff, with films by other grand directors like Pedro Almodovar, Terrence Malick and Ken Loach)
Tarantino’s fixation with B-movie culture, sadistic violence, exploitation films and the past is strange. And repetitive. His pastiches do not add anything to the zeitgeist, like a Greta Gerwig or a Xavier Dolan film would. They’re of their time, their films help us understand better our age. Tarantino recycles and repurposes, a dumpster-diving Louis Lumière.
Good cinema isn’t available here, but I’m charmed by his overtures to cinephilia and a very momentous time in American history.
“Once upon a time in Hollywood,” like his previous films, are like treasure hunts for the movie buff, full of references to film history, great directors, genre cinema and the popular culture around it (from drive-ins to movie theaters, movie posters, etc). Why Tarantino keeps flattering the past is a question his psychologist should tackle.
There is a veneer of nostalgia in “Once upon a time in Hollywood,” a sad movie about a sad sack of an actor in the late sixties. Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) is a TV and Western has-been actor chasing success in a waning Hollywood golden age (the film is set in 1969). His stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), stuck in a rut, too, comes along for the ride, acting as his personal assistant.
Dalton goes from set to location, rehearses, declaims, and forgets, his lines, drinks too much and throws tantrums in his trailer. With his performance as Rick Dalton DiCaprio earns his Best Actor Prize. It’s very enjoyable to watch one of our best actors at the top of his art. Di Caprio steals everyone else’s thunder, including Brad Pitt’s. As Cliff Booth, Pitt looks out of place and ineffective. Other actors of note in “Once upon a time in Hollywood” are Bruce Dern, in the role of George Spahn, of the Spahn Ranch, Timothy Olyphant, Lena Dunham and Tim Roth.
Margot Robbie plays Sharon Tate. In one of the pleasurable scenes in “Hollywood,” Robbie’s Sharon Tate notices her likeness on a poster for “Wrecking Crew” outside a movie theater in downtown Hollywood. She asks the theater employee if she can get in, for free, since she’s in the movie. Once in her seat she watches the audience’s reaction, her pleasure at seeing the crowd’s feedback manifest. It’s a touching moment of the film, a tribute to the collective experience of cinema, fitting for a film showing at the Cannes Festival. Tate smiles beautifully, it looks heartfelt, the embodiment of innocence, at a time in America (1969) when our innocence was shattered. The Vietnam war was in full swing and Kennedy was murdered six years earlier.
“Once upon a time in Hollywood” is a memorable pastiche about an era on the wane. It’s entertaining, at times, but the story is uneven. You might say that it’s two films in one–maybe three–Tarantino’s meandering script covering too much ground. The first part is a series of vignettes. In one of the more memorable ones, an entertaining fight sequence with a Bruce Lee lookalike establishes why Cliff Booth isn’t able to find work. He was declared persona non-grata, and lives up to his damaged reputation by eagerly jumping into a fight with the Jeet Kune Do master, damaging the stunt department manager’s wife’s car in the process.
People in those days drove cool and powerful vehicles. But now the planet is going to the dogs and electric cars are cool.
Elsewhere in this first part of “Hollywood,” we’re made privy to Dalton’s more private side. He fights with his demons, acts in scenes from a TV western, etc. The second and last part of the movie has to do with a home invasion by the disciples of Charles Manson, but I won’t say too much more, we were sworn to secrecy by Tarantino himself in a curious tweet sent via the film’s account.
“Once upon a time in Hollywood” rolls out in theaters on July 26th.