The Bigger They Come
Jeff Reichert on Olivier Assayas’s Carlos
Remains pan, radiators for all
Radial, I'm still in control, I understand, a hand, a hand moved me
Driven by self-propulsion
Turning right across the stream
The risks increased with sustained leisure
Courting death, so ill at...ease
“Dot Dash” —Wire
Olivier Assayas’s Carlos opens with a disclaimer noting the necessary fictionalization of certain elements of the following story even though the overall project aimed for historical fidelity. Disclaimers are banal, cinematic elements usually not remarked upon, but as with everything we see in a film, someone had to choose to include it and select what specific words and phrasing to employ. When this kind of text begins the new work by Assayas, a filmmaker always assiduously attuned to every piece of the cinematic machine, we should pay attention. Clearly the filmmaker wants us to immediately recognize the dangers inherent in using a movie to navigate the life of any historical figure, much less one with as rich and varied a saga as that of Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, the aspiring Venezuelan revolutionary who would go on to become the landless international terrorist and mercenary Carlos “The Jackal.” We should recognize these dangers, and in this state of heightened awareness, view Carlos appropriately—as a mix of images standing in for facts and other images the results of carefully conceived fictions.
When first announced, Olivier Assayas’s epic nearly six-hour, three-part miniseries/cinema event seemed like it might be almost more than fans of the man’s work could stand. Part of a very loosely defined current wave of contemporary French filmmakers (including also Claire Denis and Arnaud Desplechin) who grew up in the swirling aftermath of ’68 and were influenced by that moment’s energy and politics but subsumed the polemics of Godard and Debord into a narrative mastery that made ample room for the pleasures of visual cinema (yet still often noted the hazards of such enjoyments), Olivier Assayas has over the last decade produced some of the most purely entertaining and emotionally affecting “serious” works of this cinematic moment. Last year’s Summer Hours alone (his “small French film” which uses the minor tale of a French family in transition to tease out the devastating ways in which globalization affects all our lives) would place him at the vanguard, but, since the mid 1990s, his body of work has been staggeringly terrific across genres, continents, languages—Cold Water; Late August, Early September; Irma Vep; demonlover; Clean. Even his sexy B-movie toss-off Boarding Gate rises above the majority of issuances from the “genre” scene. Virtuoso camera work, boundless empathy for his characters, a probing intellect, millennial nervousness about the heaving throes of late capitalism, and, lest we forget, spot-on musical tastes—what could be better than the promise of nearly six hours of all this, reframed through the lens of an international espionage thriller?
Some housekeeping: Carlos, which was conceived for television, but plays in three parts theatrically (an abbreviated cut will circulate, but it’s hard to imagine what that might be like), structures the man’s life into neat acts. Part I covers his early his time spent working in Western Europe for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in the early 70s. Part II is largely concerned with the famed 1975 raid in which Carlos and a small crew raided OPEC headquarters in Vienna, took the attending ministers hostage and left the country by plane. This event made Carlos an international celebrity and also planted the seeds of his eventual marginalization and withdrawal from the idealistic side of revolutionary practice in favor of mercenary tactics and work for the highest bidder, all tracked in Part III. It’s a neat package—well reasoned and apportioned—and Assayas nimbly flits around the globe following his complicated protagonist across continents and ever-shifting loyalties over the course of a rather breezy 319-minute experience.
Unfortunately the first part is somewhat enervating—Assayas has never been a filmmaker much interested in the expository (he famously shot his fourth feature Une Nouvelle vie at a three-hour length and then cut the connective tissue, leaving a more abstract two-hour feature behind), preferring instead to trust in the forward velocity of his narratives to pull his viewers along, questions and confusions be damned. Part one has some of this rush: a car bombing in France that takes the life of an anonymous bureaucrat (the film opens as this man awakes and putters around a small Parisian apartment while conversing with his lover, nude, smoking a cigarette—is this his 1991 film Paris Awakens?) caroms quickly to Carlos’s arrival in Beirut to meet with the head of PFLP to ask for further responsibilities (this arrival, scored to the Feelies’s jangly “Loveless Love” edges towards unfortunate hagiography until the song cuts abruptly preclimax). His return to Western Europe seems caught between poles as characters are introduced then dropped, narratives are foreshortened to the point of ellipsis, and Carlos attempts and botches a number of attacks—yet the film pauses at length for Carlos to unpack the geopolitical scene, boorishly regurgitate revolutionary maxims (these speeches are some of the few I can recall in Assayas’s cinema that feel obviously, overtly written), or, worse, enjoy some sexual play that involves fondling a lover’s crotch with a grenade (Boarding Gate and demonlover’s hoariest elements often take unlikely root when Carlos enters the boudoir). It’s truly a portrait of the terrorist as a young buffoon: he assuredly reiterates Marxist cliché about the need for action, yet tosses a bomb in a cafe with all the giggly and nervous energy of a kid knocking on an elderly neighbor’s front door and running away. The needs of the fiction (establishing Carlos as an individual agent who will be compelling to watch across nearly six hours) tug somewhat against the needs of the history; part one feels in a hurry to be somewhere else, even as it’s mired in the necessary building blocks of epic-length filmmaking.
Whether or not we’re supposed to “like” Carlos is a central question of Assayas’s conception of Carlos. We’re by turns (and perhaps somewhat too obviously) asked to be compelled and then repelled—he’s beautiful, charismatic, self-assured, intelligent, yet perhaps luckier than he is good, crass, violent, and trite even in his most vital and dangerous period. In Assayas’s more aggressively performance-driven works (Late August with its doe-eyed Mathieu Amalric, Boarding Gate’s vampiric Asia Argento), the filmmaking is still usually the star; in the young Edgar Ramirez, formerly a bit player, now thrust onto the world stage, Assayas’s camera seems to have met its match for perhaps the first time. A shot following a successful bomb attack scored to New Order’s “Dreams Never End” follows Carlos from a sudsy bath over to a full-length mirror. He touches his chest, rests his hand on his penis and balls while the beat pounds; in a cinema that has so often been concerned with feminine strength and sexuality, here we find unbridled masculinity. Carlos is so concerned with this specific masculine figure, his ability to speak multiple languages fluently, his body size (Ramirez pulls the full Raging Bull shape-shift multiple times in the film), hirsuteness (Carlos may offer the year’s best collection of period mustaches and sideburns), his ability to command the screen, that the movie sometimes recedes or even stalls in his presence. Ramirez delivers a spectacular performance, to be sure, but sometimes Assayas’s fascination with this particular spectacle perforates somewhat his usually cooly calibrated overall design.
The second part picks up considerable steam as Carlos is enlisted by PFLP leader Wadie Haddad (Ahmad Kaabour, inexplicably directed to shout most of his lines in a series of repetitive meetings with Carlos) for his most famous mission: the kidnapping of OPEC oil ministers from a meeting in Vienna and the execution of the Saudi and Iranian representatives. The event itself is electrifying cinema; Carlos is at his most heroic (waging war on big international oil is a crowd-pleaser in any period, even if the ends of the attack are somewhat murky), and Assayas jockeys from the meeting room to a gun battle in the hallway outside to the hostage negotiators on the street below with such fluidity it’s as if he’d been directing action sequences like this for years. In a way, he has: his camera often moves through even the most benign of scenes as if life and death might be at stake (often his characters, especially his youthful ones, believe that to be the case); the camerawork following Maggie Cheung navigating a train station in Clean knocks the viewer about as if they were in the midst of a car chase. The hostage-taking and embarrassing denouement (Carlos commandeered a plane without the ability to reach their safe haven in Baghdad, forcing him to fly to Algiers, then Tripoli, then back where he agreed to ransom the hostages; a “victory” that even he knows is Pyrrhic at best) is some of the best, most intuitive filmmaking of Assayas’s career—I’ll be stunned if an offer from Hollywood for a Bourne Something-or-other isn’t forthcoming. The film’s politics are some of his most fascinating—Carlos’s rapport with oil ministers from countries sympathetic to his cause and his negotiations with the leaders of Algeria provide images of dapper men in suits seriously conversing with Che knockoffs in berets, reminding that, once upon a time not too long ago, the idea of real revolution was tangible and the actors for that cause were international players able to get the attention of heads of state.
In the wake of the failure of the OPEC mission, Haddad expels Carlos from the PFLP. All of 26 years of age, rich and internationally famous, he drifts for a few years, finally establishing bases for a new organization in various spots behind the Iron Curtain with members of the German Revolutionary Cells including Johannes Weinrich (Alexander Scheer) and Magdalena Kopp (Nora von Waldstätten). Kopp, initially partnered with Weinrich, eventually marries Carlos, and their tumultuous relationship at long last provides Carlos with a strong feminine foil to Ramirez—von Waldstätten, with her cool bangs and porcelain skin, has a face made for cinema (ah, what von Sternberg might have done with her); she’s powerful even as she succumbs to Carlos’s advances. She’s also the first woman in the film who shares enough screen time with the mercenary to fully highlight his hypocritical excesses. They eventually have a daughter together and scenes of Carlos on the beach, paunchy past his prime with his little girl, suggest the third part is the Summer Hours of the triptych—we watch the world leave the radical terrorist behind while he makes a fortune, buys a fancy car, deals with domestic squabbles, and, ironically, problems with swollen testicles. Where part one’s confusion feels the result of an attempt to do too much, to be everywhere all at once, by part three we know Carlos well, and the finale drifts pleasurably across countries and narratives, picking up shards of stories, using the ellipses that disoriented earlier to suggest a world of geopolitical intricacies that a man like Carlos, formed in a prior age all of a decade before, can no longer successfully navigate. As much as part three suggests the global evolution of Summer Hours, its form is not unlike the disorienting finale of demonlover expanded to feature-length; it covers the most chronological time and different locations of the three films, finishing up with Carlos’s arrest in Khartoum and extradition back to France in 1994. This Carlos of Assayas’s imagination is more compelling than the iteration we met in part one, even if he’s somewhat less factual.
Wire’s classic anthem/eulogy-in-advance “Dot-Dash” is used to score several sequences towards the latter half of Carlos. Both a fist-pumping rabble-rouser and a caution against excess, the song reflects the contradictions of treating Carlos filmically—his early politics are laudable, his charisma undeniable, his means atrocious. (One hopes and believes that with “Dot-Dash,” Assayas is memorializing the openness and possibility of Carlos’s historical moment and not the man himself.) That opening disclaimer was a warning, but might also have been an apology—the camera loves Ramirez throughout, and we can’t help but be seduced by Carlos as well. Thankfully, throughout the film the havoc he wreaks is generally short, quick, and unattractive. Its aftermath is often captured via skillful archival insertions of bombed structures and victims; Assayas pays tribute to the dead and wounded via variously degraded pieces of video firmly situating each attack in its historical moment. Carlos is a virtuoso piece of filmmaking, no doubt, but it still leaves me with nagging questions: What’s the point of all this? Why do we need a movie about Carlos now (surely not to inspire bands of youths to take up his lifestyle)? In comparison to Summer Hours, Carlos sometimes feels like it was taken on as a challenge, rather than a work obsessed over and loved, something to achieve as opposed to something to accomplish. At Assayas’s stage in his career, one can’t really blame him for trying out a project of this scale, but Carlos may be more feat than film.
Renewed, it fought
As if it had a cause to live for
Denied, it learned
As if it had sooner been destroyed
“The 15th” —Wire