For decades now, Olivier Assayas has been the hardest director in France to pin down, and the one you take your eye off at the greatest peril. Themes, textures, moods and modes shift radically from movie to movie – sometimes, often, with Assayas, within a single movie. But underpinning everything is a restless fascination with what it means to be human, what it’s like to be in the world, and how the world is put together, at every level.
Certainly, few whose first experience of Assayas was his last film, Summer Hours – an intimate, deceptive family drama staring Juliette Binoche – would have expected this next: a harsh, forensically detailed biopic of the international leftist terrorist known as Carlos The Jackal, which, in its violence and epic scope, its coldness and heat, plays like a cross between The Baader Meinhof Complex, Mesrine and Goodfellas.
Originally made for French TV, Carlos was also released in cinemas in a two-and-a-half hour cut. But the way to watch it is to sink into the original three-part series, running over five hours. Covering 1973 – 1994, the year Carlos was captured and convicted, Assayas shows us a lot of the man who was born Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, but never really tries to explain him, or kid us that he can. An opening disclaimer makes clear the movie was based on rigorous research, but also that it must be taken as fiction.
In a brilliant performance, Edgar Ramirez makes Carlos charismatic and repellent by turns. You never know him. You’re never sure if there’s anything worth knowing. First encountered as an operative for the Popular Front For The Liberation Of Palestine, preparing a bombing campaign in London, Assayas presents Carlos as fully formed. No backstory, no passages about his childhood in Venezuela. All his ideas and ideals are already fixed, and seem to remain so, unchanging until the end.
The question is, what are they? Is he, as his passionate, hectoring rhetoric insists, a committed revolutionary? Or a strutting mercenary, whose main motivation is his egomania? The character study boils down to two moments: the young Carlos, standing naked before a mirror, admiring his toned body; and the flabbier man of twenty-years and many pretty young radical-chic chicks later, refusing to accept he’s been discarded by history, checking into a clinic for liposuction on his love handles.
Around this vacuum, Assayas, hopping the globe from bloody episode to bloody episode with little pause for reflection, offers a concise history in how radical political violence played out across Europe during the final Cold War years. Often, it was as the most horrendous kind of black comedy. Many of the terrorist’s schemes are stumbling, bungled failures; a sequence depicting a militant gang’s plan to take a rocket launcher to an airport and blow up planes on the runway could fit into Chris Morris’s Four Lions.
Each episode of the series has its own internal rhythm, corresponding to where Carlos is in his career. The first, as he seeks to carve his reputation, is hectic, bitty. The second, as he hits full notoriety with the audacious 1975 raid on an OPEC conference in Vienna, is a stunning, brilliantly sustained, intensely thrilling tour de force. The final part, with Carlos a man without a country, washed up in Sudan following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the shift in the geopolitical dynamic, is slow, fuzzy, burned-out, all talk.
Through it all, Assayas manages to get up close, and keep his distance, undermining the drama and puncturing the narrative with odd fades to black, anachronistic flashes of music (choices displaying his impeccable taste: New Order, The Feelies, Wire, even The Dictator’s “Sonic Reducer.”) Carlos is a flawed, knotty piece, but knows that it can’t be anything else. Its ambition knocks you sideways.