Carlos (2010, Olivier Assayas)
Olivier Assayas’ massive undertaking, a full-on examination of notorious terrorist Carlos the Jackal’s activities spanning three decades, runs over five hours (making it, incidentally, the longest film I’ve ever seen as of this writing). It’s divided into three installments shown separately on French television, but also screened theatrically with breaks between the episodes. There exists a severe two and a half-hour truncation of Carlos, which the director was contractually obligated to nail down and produce; having viewed some of this pseudo-theatrical version (both variations were available on Netflix Instant) and then thrown up my hands and switched to the miniseries, I can understand why nearly every theater that showed the film opted for the lengthier version. In terms of pacing, detail, and rhythm, there’s basically no reason I can parse out for seeing the “theatrical,” one-stroke variation.
What’s more troubling in this immensely admirable picture is that even at full length, it feels like a truncation of a much longer story. That’s acknowledging the fact that Assayas wisely skirts the impulse to “explain” Carlos or his back story, which serves him well in terms of narrative economy and in establishing his thesis about the man. Carlos’ legend vastly outpaced the reality — he was even written into Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity as the villain! — and part of the purpose of this film is to deconstruct that legend, to pin the proverbial balloon. It succeeds, but its episodic nature, flying quickly from one vignette to the next, some short and some very long, somewhat undercuts its energy. It almost seems as if the story would function better as a full-on TV series, a sort of anti-Fugitive. But it would be difficult to sell mass audiences, presumably, on a murderous man with whom they’re never really expected to sympathize.
As it stands, this is a complex and sometimes frustrating (deliberately) character study, but for all its ambivalence about Carlos himself, it’s undeniably a stylish and even slick elaboration. Assayas walks a fine line between capturing the times he depicts, objectively portraying Carlos without glorifying him, and crafting an entertaining if difficult movie along the lines of The Day of the Jackal and Munich — in other words: managing to show Carlos the way he saw himself and the way others interpreted him without inspiring kids to put Carlos posters up in their bedrooms.
He succeeds, but there are moments when you find yourself involved enough in the action to feel slightly confused, which is likely the point. Propulsive, eternally hip post-punk cuts from Wire and New Order punctuate Carlos’ inner and outer worlds in astounding montage sequences. As his sense of purpose and his influence in an increasingly democratic, globalized world collapse, the music grows brighter and sunnier, Carlos more depressed; one of the most stirring scenes I’ve experienced in any film lately is the sequence of cathartic clips illustrating the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the defacing of Stasi headquarters, set to the Lightning Seeds’ vapidly cutesy “Pure” against cross-cutting of Carlos playing with his daughter on the beach. It’s perversely cinematic, and the irony is glorious — Carlos’ loss of direction intermingled with a universal sense of joy, the world on an opposite course to his in what seems almost a specific nod to the finale of The Searchers — the old outlaw antihero now irrelevant.
That’s one reason Carlos feels slightly imbalanced. Its final third is so compelling and narratively tight it has the effect of making the first two parts seem merely like preludes to the film Assayas most passionately wanting to make: that of Carlos’ undoing and downfall, and stubborn ignorance of both. For all its sense of sweeping history and tension, the only other point at which the series exhibits such focus is during the nail-bitingly suspenseful, painstakingly detailed reenactment of the OPEC hostage crisis of 1975. Occupying most of the second part, this sequence is lengthy and involved enough to be a feature in and of itself. Like all of Carlos, it’s flawlessly directed by a real and serious filmmaker — and simply by itself, it would make the entirety worth seeing.
But there is much else of interest here, not least the ease with which Assayas captures the sociopolitical and revolutionary spirit of the ’70s and its lingering impact on subsequent decades. The relevance of the Palestinian Liberation Front’s affairs and Carlos’ transition behind the Iron Curtain offer an object lesson in how ideals and revolutionary sentiments change over time, dovetailing sharply with the shrinking and transformation of the planet around Carlos. The film is certainly more successful as a historical drama than as an action film, something that will disappoint some audiences but will allow it to age all the more gracefully into a worthy time capsule as the likes of Carlos — living out the high-stakes glamor of a secret agent-like terrorist, a sharp contrast to our modern associations with the word today — become a distant memory.
The characterization of Carlos is the feature of the miniseries most inviting of interpretive discussion; the film’s underlying notion seems to be that he is an empty shell, as shown by the ease with which he changes allegiances from one revolutionary unit to another, his pouting when he doesn’t get his way, and in fact his relative clumsiness. Édgar Ramírez’s performance is magnificent, pandering and childlike and inexpressive, a misogynistic sociopath whose sneering arrogance masks both the sheer blankness of his mind and a lazy self-indulgence that’s already threatening to take him over in the film’s first hour. He’s most at home in the wining and dining aspect of his work — his throwing of grenades tends to attract excess attention, and most of his operations are plenty violent but seldom achieve their purpose, and many are outright botched — expounding emptily on ideals the way C.F. Kane talked about “the people.” Carlos is said to be a neutral, objective investigation but I didn’t find that to be the case — the film clearly looks down on him and its attitude seems to be that he’s self-absorbed and pathetic, admiring himself in mirrors and slapping women around after they blow him, affording serious respect strictly to his own warped and insular perception of all around him. We watch him become a slob, his shirt perpetually open, his testicles hurting. In contrast to John Wayne in The Searchers, he never attains any real self-awareness; the authorities catch up first, and we’re out.
Despite its central character’s psychosis and its narratively unneven nature, Carlos also scratches at something deeper in regard to the way idealism infects (or doesn’t infect) personal lives; its most telling moments may finally be the titles at the end revealing the fates of its various characters, and the revelation that those whose existences were devoted least to excess were those who finally escape the covert lifestyle, for good or ill. Carlos‘ other central awareness is of a life outside all of this. Although the title character’s life before his turn to guerrilla cloak-and-dagger tactics isn’t commented on, those who suffer from his actions with injury and death are shown to have lovers, families, futures, histories, the ache of futility always palpable when they’re slain. There may be things worth dying for, but there are also things worth living for despite everything — and frolicking on the beach with your young daughter might, who knows, be one of them.