Carlos: Olivier Assayas Crime Epic

By Patrick Z. McGavin

Cannes Film Fest 2010 (Out of Competition)–Olivier Assayas’ “Carlos” has buoyancy and speed that is absolutely enthralling. The nervy, constantly unpredictable French director has created a visually sophisticated movie that informs every frame with a tactile detail and emotional intensity.

An electrifying three-part, 321-minute study of the two decade reign of terror launched by the notorious Venezuelan-born criminal and terrorist mastermind Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, Assayas has created a major achievement that neither sentimentalizes nor romanticizes his subject.

Instead he gives full range to Carlos’ spellbinding presence, his dramatic personality and deeply skilled leadership capabilities, his sexual power and hold over a number of women against his murderous impulses and insecurity that fully considers the wanton loss and violence suffered as a result of his mercenary behavior and ruthless actions.

The movie premiered Wednesday afternoon at Cannes. In the U.S., the film is being jointly released, on different media platforms, by the Sundance Channel and IFC Films. The Sundance Channel will broadcast the work in its entirety, and IFC is will issue a special theatrical version in the fall. (In some major markets, the full version will also be shown theatrically.)

With his key collaborators, the producer Daniel Leconte and his co-writer, the journalist Dan Franck and historical consultant Stephen Smith, Assayas has adroitly fictionalized the story with a compelling counter narrative that fills in the shadowy gaps and unknowable aspects of the terrorist’s life.

Aided by the work of two great cameramen, Denis Lenoir and Yorick Le Saux, Assayas buttresses the movie’s detailed visual design with searing, evocative archival footage that only extends the historical authenticity. The film is also very much attuned thematically to Assayas’s recent trilogy on global markets, sexual transgression and of “Demon Lover,” “Clean” and “Boarding Gate.”

Like Steven Soderbergh’s “Che,” the movie is a meditation on history and politics. The narrative is shaped by Carlos’s ambitious plan to launch an international Marxist insurrection. He grounds the time, especially the 1970s, marked by a tumultuous, surreal sense of a world dangerously out of balance. He beautifully synthesizes the disparate and sometimes contradictory parts by intimately binding personality to history.

In the regard Assayas’s great collaborator is the exceptional lead actor Edgar Ramirez in the title part. His sensational, star-making turn, at once imposing, tough, freewheeling, offers a palpable and sustained sense of the man’s charisma, wit and imposing intelligence that taken with his inflexible ideological beliefs created his steely and frightening convictions.

The actor’s facility for languages imbues the work with a range of voices, the dialogue shifting fluidly among accented English contrasted with the expressively spoken French, Spanish, German, Russian, Japanese and Arabic.

Despite the nearly six-hour running time, Assayas eschews the origins tale. The first part is really the story of Carlos’ birth as a skilled tactician and terrorist operative. He elides over Carlos’ back story and opens the movie in 1973. Following a failed assassination plot against a prominent Jewish businessman in London, Carlos is embedded, in Paris, as the European division of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), reporting to the Lebanese militant Moukharbal (Fadi Abi Samra).

One of the best things about the film is how skillfully it delineates the complex political and cultural alliances and networks Carlos engineered to achieve his mission. The first part sharply demonstrates how easily Carlos moved between different ideological factions and autonomous cells, from German revolutionary cells to a cadre of Japanese Red Army militants who stage a daring attack on the French embassy in The Hague to force the release of a comrade detained by the French state security forces.

The most extraordinary set piece in part one is the stand off after a group of French state security forces confront Carlos, whose identity is unknown to them, at a Paris apartment. Working in his typically fluid and mobile camera, Assayas stages the scene as a tense and dramatic back and forth that culminates with a sudden, frightening act of violence, Carlos shooting dead the three policemen that both enlarge his bourgeoning reputation and deepen his profile as an international fugitive.

He joins Haddad (Ahmad Kaabour), the leader of the PFLP running operations out of South Yemen. Most of the second part is concerned with Carlos’ most brazen operation that involved seizing control of OPEC headquarters in Vienna during an assassination plot to kill a Saudi oil minister to underscore militant Arab discontent over the role of Saudi Arabia in removing the oil embargo against leading capitalist countries. Leading a group of six militants, Carlos brilliantly achieves the strategic upper hand.

In the combat that ensued, Assayas conveys the hallucinatory carnage and eerie physical destruction. The next hour allows a precise and extraordinarily tense stand off after the militants seize their hostages. Carlos foretells chilling details of the Saudi oil minister’s impending death as the various government factions and state security divisions move toward a negotiated settlement.

The inadvertent death of a Libyan minister during the operation ruptures the group’s exit strategy and ostensibly concludes the mission on an ambiguous, unsatisfactory way that terminates the relationship of Carlos and his Arab benefactor.

It opens the way for new partnerships, and the balance of the film demonstrates the bizarre coupling of Carlos and his comrades, mostly German revolutionary cell members, as they broker a series of secret arrangements with the East German state police Stasi and the KGB to fund, arm and mobilize their network of Eastern European and Middle East operatives.

The movie’s third part, the longest section at just under two hours, details the inevitable decline of the terrorist as the collapse of the Eastern bloc undermines their ideological rationale and political pressure abroad all but eliminates whatever any available sanctuaries the group is able to live and operate in.

“Carlos” is propulsive and active, but the storytelling is measured by a horrible and profound sense of loss, disruption, even moral cowardice. The movie captures a torrent of terrible violence that incites fear and social destabilization. The violence is never vicarious or removed from human consequence. It is mournful, devastating and often awful to consider. The movie paints with an eerie and disturbing power the abject horror and craven desperation violence is heir to.

Ramirez is frighteningly good. In the first section, he seizes on his magnetic and sexual attractiveness that solidified his reputation. (Like Che, he was dogmatic, inflexible and a profound womanizer.) The sensual power he holds over people is driven home during a critical moment early on where he stands naked, admiring his supple body. Ramirez invests the part with an insouciance and daring, an alertness of mind that underscores his vanity, unique abilities and unnerving survival instincts.

By the time it’s over the sense of exhaustion intermingles with a profound sense of a wonder at a hypnotic and intoxicating movie that, ruminating on a strange historical moment, shows how movies are uniquely qualified to alter, transform and mediate that history into an exciting and deeply satisfying artistic experience.