The Cannes Festival opened a window to Tarantino’s latest film, ‘Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood’, with a hype and precaution never seen before. They opened the window and then immediately, slammed it shut: the film wouldn’t be premiering until the summer. And this securely plants it in spoiler territory, a viral state that has had brutal fever-pitch highs of late, like those of Game of Thrones, and which have always accompanied any narrative intrigue, especially in the movies. For example, what would have become of The Sixth Sense if it’s gutted before the intricacy of its storyline? …
Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood contains a plot twist, a “click”, so brilliant, so free and whimsical, that it makes the film easy prey for spoilers. And, yes, it may to a certain degree mitigate the surprise factor and enjoyment of those who go the movie having been spoiled, but that in no way alters the great, fun, masterful and spectacular about this latest Tarantino work. The spoiler doesn’t ruin the masterpiece, at best it’s merely a scratch on the surface, and it’s a masterpiece you can and should watch over and over, even if you know how it ends. Do you honestly think anyone cares about knowing how Vertigo or The Philadelphia Story ends or that it would curb the enjoyment experienced by watching it for the first time?
That said, let’s talk about Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood without referencing the dreaded “click”. Tarantino chooses a location, a time and a state of mind to narrate his tale in this movie. Los Angeles, end of the sixties and the infamous event known worldwide as the murder of Sharon Tate by the Manson Family. And he also chooses to enter through his favorite door, the one he feels inside and understands: the B movie, TV serials, the “spaghetti western”, that mixture of banality and substance, the codes and clichés, the world of “goodies” and “baddies” and an essential almost child-like idea that movies are better than life. The latter is easier to understand if one remembers the whimsical pleasure taken in organizing the ambush in Inglorious Bastards, that ended Hitler’s life. That’s having, or believing you have, a magic wand, not rewriting History.
In this movie, from the photograph of that “off” Hollywood that has so much to do with his movie culture, he focuses on two antagonistic characters: a star of western serials and his stunt double, Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth, aka Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. In them, Tarantino sums up his entertaining, yet also nostalgic and murky vision, of a crucial time of flux on the Hollywood landscape, ending with the tragic murder of Sharon Tate. Tarantino mixes his movies with those his characters are shooting, with Dalton; the insecure star whose constant preoccupation with his figure’s decline; and that of his double, friend and man for all seasons, worried about a future that doesn’t depend on him … There’s filming, studio environment, aroma of “spaghetti”, references to European cinema’s relay of the baton from Hollywood, there are nods to and winks at, quotes from and jokes about other actors, including Steve McQueen, Al Pacino and Bruce Lee, and he even finds the time and the will to elaborate an intrigue. By pure chance, it turns out that Dalton and Booth live in the mansion next door to … Roman Polansky and Sharon Tate!
In Tarantino’s review of the movies, the parties, the music of the time (Los Bravos!) and the environment of his Hollywood, he also follows the trail of the Manson Family in Los Angeles, living on the outskirts at the Spahn Ranch. The visit to the ranch by one of our stars is probably the best sequence in the movie, and where all the ingredients of the very best of Tarantino’s cinema converge: description, comedy, intrigue, climate, violence… Anyway, if you hold a “yeah, but” meter up to this movie, perhaps the most obvious ‘yeah, but’ is that it fails to provide a more direct, more powerful and more eloquent look at the figure of Charles Manson. It also lacks some of its usual spark in terms of dialogue, although the will is there and it has its moments of grace, such as the nurturing of the young actress.
If Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood isn’t his best movie to date, it’s certainly in perfect harmony with the best of some of them, with his vision and review of the movies he was brought up on, with his dosage and cult of intrigue, use of violence, his masterful narration, and although here it’s a story with no structural breaks (remember how Pulp Fiction completely changed the order and narrative structure for decades), it allows the overlapping of fiction with anthological reality.
As for the “spoiler”, bah !, it’s unimportant, because we’ll watch this one time and time again, each time discovering everything that’s magnificent about it.