Olivier Assayas's shows he thrives on reinvention with 'Carlos.'

Assayas Recreates Revolution with 'Carlos'

Max Goldberg November 5, 2010

Since premiering out of competition at Cannes, nearly all the write-ups of Olivier Assayas’s Carlos have located the film amidst the post–War on Terror flurry of dramatizations of the self-styled revolutionaries of the 1960s and ’70s (e.g. Che, United Red Army, The Baader Meinhof Complex and locally produced documentary The Weather Underground). This is as it should be: it’s often noted that Assayas wrote for Cahiers du Cinéma before he became a filmmaker, but more than his other movies Carlos works as criticism. In particular, it’s clear that Assayas is having a little fun with the connections to Che: much as Carlos aped Che, so Carlos was bound to be seen as the impure twin of Che. If Steven Soderbergh’s long film is about strategics (as Assayas remarks in his interview with Glen Kenny), Carlos, playing SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki beginning Friday, is distinctly concerned with the political agendas placed upon the terrorist act. 

Soderbergh maintained a remarkable distance from Che in order to emphasize tactics rather than romance, but Assayas and his co-writer Dan Franck are no less daring in structuring a 330-minute film around a political cipher. With his well-plotted rise and fall, epic hypocrisy and spectacular media presence, Carlos (born Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, known to his fans as Carlos the Jackal) would seem easy grist for a salacious biopic—which Carlos only pretends to be. It’s not just that Assayas and Franck are ambivalent or even indifferent about Carlos’s character: They actively undermine his charisma, and over the long haul give us the sense that he’s basically uninteresting as an individual. Watching the film, Carlos seems less Che-lite than a radical chic Forrest Gump: blundering his way into celebrity (most of his operations are botched, leading Richard Porton to correctly surmise the film as a black comedy), unwitting of history and given to repeating inane aphorisms (imperialist this, Zionist that) when he doesn’t know what else to say, which is often.

This latter aspect is one of the fine aspects of Edgar Ramírez’s multilingual, faux-cool performance. Even in the first third of the film, covering the period from when Carlos joins Wadie Haddad’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine to his career-making raid of the 1975 OPEC meeting in Vienna, Ramírez flattens out Carlos’ speechifying, revealing an impatient climber rather than an inspired rhetorician. This Carlos is immoral, certainly, but also banal. His expressions of domination and vanity (whether on the job or with a woman) are laughably obvious and, what’s worse, unchanging across the film’s three parts. The Biblically-rooted biopic trajectory of confidence, temptation, corruption and redemption is of no use to Carlos: what we have here is a figure stuck in the same wheel of samsara while history shakes the ground beneath him. At bottom, Carlos’s delusion is not that he’s a revolutionary, but rather that he’s his own man. It’s only when Carlos is cut off from the PFLP and goes freelance that his status as a Cold warrior becomes clear.

This begins to explain why Carlos is as long as it is: the impelling force of its 20-year narrative is geopolitics rather than character psychology. Historical transformations do not necessarily take more actual time than internal ones—we all live through upheavals—but they are not so easily packaged as narrative (just think of all the period dramas that render historical events through the prism of a conventional romance or coming-of-age). In Carlos, by contrast, the buildup to what Francis Fukuyama in 1989 famously termed “the end of history” is realized as an unwieldy sprawl of coincidence and rupture. Accordingly, each of the major actions channeling Carlos’s career yields multiple, often conflicting observations and outcomes. When as a young man he blasts his way out of a Paris flat, killing a former comrade and two unarmed cops, we see the hopeless naivety of the French police as well as Carlos’ quickness to think himself betrayed and reach for his revolver (in his logic, any betrayal of him is a betrayal of “the cause”—ergo, he is the cause).

Twenty years later, Carlos will be extradited from Sudan to France for these early killings, but the immediate consequences are a slap on the wrists and a higher asking price. Haddad lectures Carlos on acting as judge and executioner, but grants him command of the OPEC raid per the request of the operation’s sponsor, Saddam Hussein. Carlos is assigned to take the OPEC meeting in the name of Palestinian Liberation, but this is only a cover for the real mission. The newly enthroned Hussein needs the price of oil to stay high for military operations against the Kurds; the oil ministers of Saudi Arabia and Iran stand in the way of this, and so Carlos’ team is to murder them. Only 90 minutes into the 330-minute film, and already Carlos’s liberation ideology is merely a password.

The first part of Carlos ends with our man, clad in his urban Che garb and flanked by his internationalist crew (we might be in The Life Aquatic), ready to strike the OPEC meeting. The actual raid and hostage negotiations take a full hour of Part II, but it doesn’t behave like a conventional action movie set-piece. After a few violent exclamation points, a weird lethargy sets in. The camerawork and performances seem unfocused, the timetable unclear. And yet, the combination of the actors so looking their parts and a certain improvisational sloppiness seems just right for Carlos’s command (long on style, short on tactics). After impetuously shooting a Libyan delegate in the face, Carlos proceeds to deliver the smooth revolutionary lines he so clearly prepared for this performance, lecturing the doomed Saudi minister with the loquaciousness of a Bond villain. It’s clear Carlos wants to be taken as a fellow diplomat (again, Ramírez’s performance subtly realizes this transparency), but the dead Libyan derails his actual escape plot.

Carlos eventually takes the Saudis’ money rather than carrying out his assigned killings, disgusting two comrades who accuse him of acting as a bandit rather than a revolutionary. Indeed, this is where Carlos’s rationalizations reach a breaking point: It’s clear that if he were the obedient soldier he claimed to be, he would have carried out the assassinations at the cost of his own life. But then whatever his decision, the OPEC raid is a mercenary mission. Either Waddad takes money from Hussein or Carlos from the Saudis. In spite of the ideological heat of Carlos’ argument with his comrades, it’s something of a moot point in the film’s canny political matrix.

As Carlos’s operation becomes inextricable from his geopolitical alliances—shipping weapons in via Syrian diplomatic pouch, accepting help from the Stasi, and, in the most darkly comic scenes in the film, negotiating with a pair of weary Hungarian police agents—the film enacts a tailspin of pointless arguments and pathetic power plays. As with all Assayas’s films, whether dystopic genre exercises (demonlover, Boarding Gate) or chamber dramas (Les destinées, Summer Hours), Carlos is, finally, preoccupied with the economies and technologies of globalization. It’s fascinating to see Assayas push his concerns towards historical analysis—and doubly satisfying to see a narrative film in which complexity isn’t equivalent to vaporous ambiguity. But it’s probably just as well that Assayas says he doesn’t want to make another Carlos. There aren’t many contemporary directors, after all, who so thrive on reinvention.