By Ray Pride
Goodness had nothing to do with it.
The bold, murderous acts of 1970s terrorist-for-hire Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, who took on the nom de guerre, “Carlos,” that is—there’s no goodness there–but Olivier Assayas’ “Carlos” has something to do with greatness. It’s shockingly fluid, elemental and elegant, feeling almost weightless despite its substantial heft and ambition: a nearly five-and-a-half-hour tapestry of a criminal’s life across two decades, with more than 120 speaking roles, acted in a buffet of languages that include English, Spanish, French, Japanese, German and Arabic, most of which Carlos (Edgar Ramírez, “Domino,” “The Bourne Ultimatum,” “Che”) speaks in the film. (Ramírez’s rangy performance is thrilling for more than his linguistic fluency: he can be deliciously subtle or abruptly bold.)
As a filmmaker, Assayas is equally fluent, working in different modes to suit his subject matter, ranging from the jaunty “Irma Vep” (1996) to the jagged “Demonlover,” (2002) from the stately yet subversive “Summer Hours” (2008) to the moving meditation on mortality, “Late August, Early September” (1998). The editing of the 55-year-old director’s movies has a felicity and seldom-matched tactile character: you can feel his impatience with each jumpcut, each elided motion or gesture. He’s on the scent of something.
“The Jackal,” the nickname applied by the press is never spoken in Assayas’ epic. But other identities and pseudonyms for the Venezuelan-born most-wanted terrorist whose career lasted from 1974 to 1994 facilitate his actions. Everyman. No one. How does this chameleon reflect the shifting loyalties of international politics of the time? The script, by Assayas and Dan Franck, stays close to Carlos, his daring plans, his frequent failures, keeping the story lucid.
Carlos isn’t the mastermind. He’s a kind of figure romanticized in French movies, other movies. The man with a code, to get the job done, to get away, to survive for the next job, like the protagonists of Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Samourai” (1967) to Anton Corbijn’s “The American” (2010), to name but a pair. Stylish. Stoic. Self-assured. But Assayas also knows pop music, as his gorgeous, often-surprising soundtracks demonstrate, finding uncanny juxtapositions rather than showing off cool sounds he’s found. (Scored originally to songs by 1970s-formed rock band The Feelies, Assayas was forced to make a last-minute adjustment that now incorporates more astringent tracks by Wire.)
The song choices aren’t especially romantic or romanticizing of Carlos, but the sounds get into the bloodstream, there’s something seething to them, emotionally galvanic, providing the man of no country with an inner soundtrack years before the Walkman, the iPod, Pandora. The terrorist-as-rock-star element works more subtly, as Carlos is presented in all his physicality, lean and young at the start of the film’s decade, puffed-up and decadent by its end.
Carlos tosses a bomb into a London branch of the Jewish-owned Bank Hapoalim, but as he walks toward that entrance, the first ripples of the bass line of New Order’s 1981 song “Dreams Never End” are heard. The song continues. He kills a mini-bar dram in a hotel tub, sits on the edge of the tub, naked, content. He stands naked in the room, listening to a television report calling the attack “vicious and bestial.” He watches himself in the mirror, cups himself. There’s a tiny jumpcut as he snaps the television off. He stands at the opaque window curtains and the image of his figure fades. Assayas’ generous genius is that this juxtaposition adds mystery both to the image and to the familiar (or even if it’s unfamiliar) sounds of the opening of the song. You don’t know what it means but you know how it feels.
Talking to Nicolas Rapold for SF Weekly, Ramírez agreed with the comparison to a vainglorious rock ‘n’ roll frontman. “You have the groupies, the buses, the planes, the alcohol—you have everything.” Assayas’ response is jokey but not cagey: “I know, I know, I played with the analogy.” But Carlos plays for an audience of one: he cuts a figure, but the Dionysian display seems for himself alone, whether his action involves women, guns, or poorly planned and outrageously violent armed conflagrations. To be alive, to be in your body, to be in the world: this is one of several tingly subterranean concerns of Assayas’ masterpiece.
Assayas is an intellectual, a man who can talk theory and pop with equal discernment, but his movies, at their swiftest, sanest, most precise, are among the most instantly accessible, most contemporary, most of-the-world, of-this-world work being made, impatient, ballistic, balletic, feather-precise. While produced for French television, “Carlos” is, by all counts, a larger-than-life CinemaScope slab of cinema. Its accomplishment defies synopsis, or rather, rises above plot recitation, but it invites cataloging and admiration.
“Carlos” is scheduled to play one week at the Music Box. The 332-minute version plays December 3-5; the “theatrical” 165-minute cut, which we haven’t seen, plays December 6-9. Special pricing and program details are here. A trailer is below.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.