Thursday, December 16, 2010


Olivier Assayas' Carlos is a probing, fascinating epic, a sprawling, admittedly fictionalized biography of the Venezuelan-born socialist terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, who went by the nom de guerre of Carlos (Édgar Ramírez). The film's scope and breadth encompasses, in sharply drawn detail over a five-and-a-half-hour running time, nearly 20 years in the life of this self-described revolutionary fighter, who briefly became an internationally infamous face of terrorism for his violent actions and bold plots. The film is a profile of one man and his actions, but more than that, it is a sweeping portrayal of terrorism, diplomacy, the shifting alliances of convenience and ideology that define global relations, the back-door dealings and maneuvers in which state action and anti-state terrorism exist as part of a single, densely connected network. It is an epic in the true sense of the word, a film that attempts to present a coherent portrait of this single terrorist's actions and, in the process, to examine the struggles of the Cold War and the struggles that continue to define the world today.

Carlos is an idealist for a cause, at least at the beginning of this three-part saga. Assayas opens the film with Carlos as an eager young fighter, already with some background in insurrectionary struggle behind him, but still relatively inexperienced. He nevertheless becomes an important figure in the European arm of a Palestinian terrorist organization, based in London, carrying out actions against prominent Jewish leaders. His first, clumsy attack on a businessman to some extent establishes the pattern for what's to come: Carlos is fast and violent and effective, but his gun jams and he only wounds the man, forced to escape frantically. His second attack, a bombing of a café, goes smoother, and soon afterward Carlos, naked and solid — he will grow fat in his later years, and is already boxy — admires himself in a mirror, caressing between his legs. It is as though this success is a sexual conquest for him, a validation of his manhood and his valor. He finds glory in the slaughter of random innocents.

Sexuality, masculinity and glory are very important to this film. Carlos is a compulsive womanizer, a man who loves women as much as he loves weapons, as much as he loves his cause — or the idea of a cause, since an actual ideological commitment seems increasingly remote in relation to him throughout the course of the film. In one of the film's most telling scenes, early on, with one of his many lover/conspirators, he shows her a trunk full of weapons, reveling in her fearful reaction. He caresses her with the weapons in his hands, placing a grenade first between her legs, then rubbing it up her body to place the arming ring between her bared teeth. Sex and war and revolution are all tangled up for Carlos. His lover tells him that his love of women and his love of weapons are the same, and Carlos seems to agree: "my weapons are extensions of me, like my arms." One can't help but think of that earlier scene, where Carlos held his penis in the aftermath of a bombing, celebrating these "extensions" of himself.

Carlos celebrates because, more than an ideological revolution, it's personal glory and personal success that he seems to thirst for. He chafes against orders, declaring that he's working for the revolution, not for any leader or single government. But later, when he's independent, with control over his own cell, he demands absolute obedience; he only wants to be the one giving the orders. At one point, he tells a Saudi Arabian diplomat that he cherishes democracy, that he will discuss a crucial matter with his comrades — but when his comrades disagree with him, he explodes, making the decision unilaterally on his own. It's not democracy he wants, it's not revolution, and more and more what he seems to want is money.

The brilliance of the film's three-part structure is that it documents the increasing distance of Carlos from any kind of idealism or, towards the end, any kind of action at all. Throughout the film's first part, Carlos is, at least ostensibly, striking out in the name of a cause, though even then his cause seems poorly defined, a so-called "internationalist" movement that aims to fight imperialism everywhere. He rejects peaceful means, rejects strikes and protests and political channels, and one suspects, even this early, that he does so not so much because he doubts their effectiveness as because these methods lack opportunities for glory and grand gestures, for headlines and action. When he's first asked to join the Palestinian group, he's told to think of a code name, but he already has: he's obviously put a lot of thought into this, come up with a cool name to make famous before he had done anything to require such an alias.

The first part ends with a shot of Carlos and his cell on a train, headed towards what will turn out to be their most decisive and grandiose action, an assault on an OPEC meeting, aimed at both making a big statement and, in the process, killing the Saudi and Iranian oil ministers to advance the agenda of Iraq. The film breaks here because if the first part documents Carlos' introduction to terrorist action, the second part is about his acclimation to infamy, about his willingness to allow himself the illusion that he's an important actor on a global stage. The OPEC assault becomes a protracted and increasingly bizarre hostage negotiation, as Carlos' initial plans fall apart due to machinations within various foreign governments. He had been relying on Libyan support, but during the initial attack he killed a member of the Libyan delegation, burning that bridge almost immediately.

As a result, the terrorists wind up flying back and forth between Libya and Algeria with a DC-9 full of OPEC delegates. It would be almost comical if the stakes weren't so high, and Assayas emphasizes how ridiculous and petty it all is — the plane lands in Libya despite official refusal, but isn't allowed to leave the edge of a runway, and while they're bickering with flight control, an Austrian diplomat steps in to demand that the terrorists return the borrowed DC-9. All this while lives hang in the balance, and the terrorists begin to realize that they're facing a choice between carrying out their mission — slaughtering the Iranian and Saudi ministers — and getting killed, or letting everyone free in exchange for a large sum of money and political protection. Carlos' militant associates are in favor of killing the ministers, sacrificing themselves to complete the mission, but Carlos disagrees. He's "a soldier, not a martyr," he says, and tries to convince the others — and possibly himself — that the revolution needs the money, but it's hard to ignore the sense of a man coming to terms with political realities.

The political reality, for Carlos and his allies, is that they are simply pawns in a complex global game. Carlos began his struggle with grand goals. But what is he fighting against? Imperialism, capitalism, Zionism. He offers up abstract enemies, ideologies to combat, but there's seldom any evidence that his missions — carried out, as often as not, in service of shadowy political motivations in Baghdad or Moscow — do anything to advance his abstract revolutionary program. He fights for money, for ransoms, to gain support of one possibly sympathetic government or another.

Within the film, the German revolutionary Angie (Christoph Bach) provides the voice to these doubts, expressing his desire to fight capitalism, to make a difference, not simply to "spread terror." Angie, disillusioned with the struggle, is particularly appalled by the actions of some of his German comrades who, during a siege on an airplane, separate the Jewish passengers from the non-Jews, threatening to kill the Jews first. Angie sees it as a continuation of the horrors of Auschwitz, perpetrated in the name of a cause that is supposed to oppose tyranny and brutality but winds up simply duplicating it or worse. Angie sees a clear difference between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, and he also sees clearly that the actions he's taken part in have done little to advance the kind of cause he is interested in. Carlos sees the world in black and white, in terms of revolutionaries and anti-revolutionaries, but Angie understands that not all revolutions are equal, and that much of what is done in the name of revolution has little to do with advancing the fight against capitalism or opposing oppression.

To underscore this point, the film's second part, which encompasses the OPEC raid and its aftermath, ends with Carlos striking a deal with the Syrian government — formerly his enemies, who had once tried to killed him, but who now want his services in a changed world — to set up a new organization and work for them. In the film's third part, the bulk of the terrorists' time is spent shuttling from one place to another, establishing tenuous relationships with various socialist governments, getting an offer from the KGB to kill Egyptian president Anwar Sadat (Carlos dithers until someone beats him to the hit), forging alliances with Iraq, Syria and East Germany, even flirting with helping out Romanian dictator Ceausescu. Carlos' ideals, whatever they were, seem to have vanished, and when one German diplomat calls him a mercenary, it's essentially accurate. He plots mission after mission, most of which never happen, but which in any case all have as their only goal money, or weapons, or political support. The film's third act is a long decline into irrelevance, as Carlos gets old and fat, settles down with his wife Magdalena (Nora von Waldstätten) and their daughter, drinks, plays at the beach, poses as a businessman. It's an aging terrorist's idyll, and Assayas presents it as such, as a surreal interlude of domestic calm — at least relatively, since Carlos' philandering ways continue throughout — in a life of violence. Carlos' story doesn't end with a bang, it just peters out, until after the Cold War, after a montage shows the fall of the Berlin Wall and the destruction of the East Berlin Stasi offices where Carlos once cut so many deals, Carlos is simply a liability, welcome nowhere, kicked out of Syria and Libya, abandoned by the mistreated Magdalena, out of contact with his daughter. Even his vaunted penis fails him, throbbing with pain and requiring medical attention, while his vanity compels him to seek liposuction — "for his love handles," as an observing spy mocks him to a superior.

Carlos is forced to confront, then, the knowledge that he was not nearly as important as he had thought. With the Cold War over, there are no longer any friendly government embassies or spy headquarters where he is welcome, no longer any allies, no longer anyone who needs his services. He even tries to flatter himself by believing that someone is going to come after him and kill him, that the French or the Israelis or the CIA would want him dead, but the fact is that he's a small concern by this point, incidental, and he's finally only taken to France and tried for the long-ago murders of two policemen. He was a useful nuisance, an agitator in the long war between East and West, a gun-runner and a pawn. But despite his briefly famous name and his grandiose rhetoric, he accomplished nothing. He was never more than a tool passed around in the hands of various warring governments.

In documenting this harsh reality, Assayas' filmmaking crackles and vibrates with raw energy. The soundtrack buzzes with punk and post-punk songs by bands like Wire, New Order and the Dead Boys, music with a raw-nerve vitality that is perfectly suited to Assayas' globetrotting saga. His characteristic probing camera is equally well-suited to nuanced negotiations, fast-paced action, and the many slow, sensual scenes that establish the rhythms of Carlos' global lifestyle: his routine seductions of women, his constant traveling back and forth. The film leaps from place to place around the world, constantly introducing new cities and new power brokers with onscreen titles, conveying the sense of constant momentum that, in the early stretches of the film, establishes Carlos' rise to power, and is then used in similar ways later in the film to suggest that he is no longer welcome anywhere, that he's being forced from place to place.

The film's scope also allows Assayas to establish subtle rhymes and patterns, like the way that, during the OPEC hostage incident, the plane is turned away from Libya, and later, when Carlos is trying to find a safe asylum to settle in after being kicked out of Syria, his plane is again sent back from Libya, for very different reasons, but both times because of politics, alliances, appearances, diplomacy, all the things that Carlos likes to think he's involved in but that he really doesn't understand. There is a pattern, too, to Carlos' seductions of women, to the ways in which he draws women to him and uses them, always continuing to take other lovers, to see prostitutes, and to demand absolute obedience in matters both personal and political. He is a chauvinist who has little patience for feminism, who despite his supposed championing of the oppressed can see no role for women as equal partners.

This is just one of Carlos' limitations as limned here. Assayas, by necessity, invented much of this story, reading between the lines of his meticulous research, and he shapes the material into an examination of the ways in which ostensibly revolutionary programs again and again serve the interests of various states and governments, never doing anything to help the oppressed anywhere. Even when Carlos undertakes a campaign of bombing and terror with the intention of freeing Magdalena from prison, he only accomplishes the opposite, stiffening the sentence handed down against her in response to the attacks. In this respect, Assayas goes somewhat beyond Gillo Pontecorvo's famous The Battle of Algiers, to which he obliquely nods with his café bombing sequence. (Though Carlos, notably, never looks at the faces of his victims the way the terrorist in Pontecorvo's film so memorably did.) Pontecorvo's film was sensitive to the devastation wrought by terrorism while suggesting that sometimes such violent resistance was necessary in the face of oppression. Assayas suggests, instead, that if that were ever true, it's not anymore, in a constantly shifting world order where oppressive and unstable governments aim terrorism as a weapon at one another, using the terrorists themselves, and their ideals and ideologies, as pawns in this global game of high-stakes chess.


Tony Dayoub said...

Excellent review, Ed. Though it seems I had more of a problem with the third part's sagginess (I feel if any part of CARLOS could have been shortened, it's this one), your justification of it as "...a long decline into irrelevance..." is appropriate. This movie still makes it pretty high on my 2010 top ten list, primarily for the energetic drive maintained so expertly by Assayas despite its length and scope.

Ramirez gives what is probably the best male performance of the year, somehow managing to make the character both attractive and repulsive at the same time.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Tony. I could see why some would find the third act a bit of a letdown after the thrills and energy of the first two segments, but I see Carlos' decline as the film's real point, so it's important to really dig into the details of his increasingly pointless efforts in his later years. Assayas makes excellent use of repetition to drive home how this character who professes to be driven by ideology is actually cycling from one master to the next, doing whatever he thinks will get him the infamy and power that he so badly wants. The third act is saggy — like Carlos himself in later years! — because it's the anticlimactic answer to the taut action/suspense of Carlos' younger years.

Agreed that Remirez is amazing in this, too. He's captivating throughout. Nearly all of the supporting performances are great, too. The scene where Johannes goes to visit the hiding Angie is a wonderful showcase for these actors in one of the rare moments when Carlos is offscreen.

Sam Juliano said...

"The film is a profile of one man and his actions, but more than that, it is a sweeping portrayal of terrorism, diplomacy, the shifting alliances of convenience and ideology that define global relations, the back-door dealings and maneuvers in which state action and anti-state terrorism exist as part of a single, densely connected network. It is an epic in the true sense of the word, a film that attempts to present a coherent portrait of this single terrorist's actions and, in the process, to examine the struggles of the Cold War and the struggles that continue to define the world today."

Aye, Ed. It's a bold statement to say that CARLOS goes beyond Pontecorvo's THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS in the sense you consider here, but I wouldn't offer any argument, even as I have always considered the 1966 a definitive, blood-curdling masterpiece. Ramirez does rank with Colin Firth at the top of the heap among male lead performances this year with a charaismatic turn that in fact for me has diminished many of the despicable aspects. (James Franco rates highly as well for his work in 127 HOURS)

What Assayas has done here is something that Stephen Soderbergh failed at with CHE, and that is to rivet, enrapture and completely enthrall during it's marathon running time. I can't remember blinking while taking this entire work on a Sunday afternoon, and I really didn't find the third section as any kind of a let-down, as it advanced the fascination forged in this acute character study. A number of set pieces were choreographed with astonishing fluidity including the assault on OPEC headquarters, which has rightly been acclaimed.

For me it's one of the year's three best films (with LOURDES and THE KING'S SPEECH) and the ONLY THE CINEMA review here is clearly one of the best in the blogoshere, or anywhere for that matter.

Ed Howard said...

Sam, make no mistake, I love The Battle of Algiers as well; it's a very powerful film. But I think Assayas does go beyond it in the sense that he's asserting that the politics and ideals of Pontecorvo's era are now outdated, or were perhaps always naive in the face of global political realities. The idea that the terrorist is a noble figure, weighing the cost of human life against the worthiness of his anti-oppression goals, is one that Assayas utterly demolishes here. Carlos styles himself like one of Pontecorvo's revolutionaries, responding with bold force to the oppression of the Western world, but in fact he's a power-hungry, amoral gun-runner who bungles nearly every project he undertakes. If Pontecorvo's film sometimes glamorizes and idealizes the terrorist, Assayas is after a much more grim and realistic view of the cause-and-effect cycle of terrorist violence.

Anyway, we certainly agree that this a great, thrilling film, and like you I watched it all in one long go, my eyes practically glued to the screen. It's enthralling.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Eed, have you seen Barbet Schroeder's documentary Terror's Advocate ? it's about Jacques Verges, but towards the close you can hear the real Carlos talking to Barbet by phone from prison.

Ed Howard said...

Haven't seen it, David, but it certainly sounds interesting. Thanks for the heads-up.