I thought the Screen Actors Guild showed more or less impeccable taste in their nominations this year (though for Best Cast, how could they have possibly forsaken the sublimely acted Up in the Air…and picked the hot warblers of Nine instead?). So in drawing attention to one performer, in particular, whom they left out of the Best Supporting Actress category, I solemnly promise you that I won’t exploit the s-word. (I’ll at least say it out loud once: snub.) What I will note is that this particular omission is worth talking about, if only because I flat-out adore this performance and I suspect that many others do too.
Take a look, for a moment, at the image just above. The woman in it is dressed — and poised — to kill, so when you first see her, there’s no question that she looks like a classic Quentin Tarantino heroine, maybe some apprentice vixen warming up to star in Kill Bill 2015. But look closer at the face: the delicate cheekbones and pensive rosebud mouth, the nearly Chaplinesque almond eyes. That’s not the mien of a born killer; it’s the pose of a sensitive, thoughtful young woman who’s been pushed to the brink, and still nurses a doubt or two about going there. That’s Mélanie Laurent in Inglourious Basterds, inventing what amounts to a new screen type: the vengeful nice Jewish girl next door. And it’s that special balance — between sweetness and fire, with ferocity made wistful — that renders this tenderly tough performance so memorable.
In the film, when Laurent, as escaped-French-Jewish-refugee-turned-Paris-movie- theater-owner Shosanna Dreyfus, puts on that dress, and applies lipstick to match, preparing for the big night in which she’ll attempt to blow up her own theater because the Nazi high command (including Hitler) will be there, Tarantino captures her cosmetic transformation from innocent girl in hiding to blood-red undercover vamp by playing the great 1982 David Bowie-Giorgio Moroder collaboration “Cat People (Putting Out Fire).” It’s a song that is soaring, operatic, transcendent — and, in Inglourious Basterds, it becomes an anthem of noirish dread and excitement, a sign that Laurent, as Shosanna, has found her destiny.
Before that, though, she’s a touching and fascinating waif-temptress, pure of heart but with too many things to hide. She must fend off the advances of an eager, rather doltish young Nazi war hero, and she also finds herself face to face with Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa, the impishly deductive SS colonel who, three years before, murdered the rest of her family. Does the all-knowing Landa now know that it’s her? During their café chat, over strudel and cream, he just about sparkles with politely sadistic interrogative glee, and Laurent, as Shosanna, volleys back his question and squirms — exquisitely. This is high-tension acting, and when the scene is over, and Shosanna practically collapses in a rush of fear and relief, the audience is bonded to her.
None of which is to say that Diane Kruger, who costars in Inglourious Basterds as Bridget von Hammersmark, a celebrity German actress-turned-allied secret agent, is anything less than terrific. She’s the one who received the SAG nomination for Best Supporting Actress, and I applaud her for it. (The Weinstein Company may have positioned Laurent as a contender for Best Actress; in an ensemble piece like this one, where no one role commands too much screen time, that was surely a mistake.) Yet if Kruger is deft and gorgeous, Laurent is radiant and, in a unique Tarantino way, heartbreaking. During her final speech, which is seen on film — a declaration to the Nazis that their reign of rage is over — Tarantino shoots her like the Wizard of Oz, as a giant hovering black-and-white face. Sexy and luminous in the heat of her valor. Putting out fire — and setting it.