Cannes Film Festival Review: "Carlos"

By Todd McCarthy | Todd McCarthy's Deep Focus May 19, 2010 at 3:26AM

"Carlos" is everything "Che" wanted to be and much, much more--a dynamic, convincing and revelatory account of a notorious revolutionary terrorist's career that rivets the attention during every one of its 321 minutes. In what is certainly his best work, French director Olivier Assayas adopts a fleet, ever-propulsive style that creates an extraordinary you-are-there sense of verisimilitude, while Edgar Ramirez inhabits the title role with arrogant charisma of Brando in his prime. It's an astonishing film.
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"Carlos" is everything "Che" wanted to be and much, much more--a dynamic, convincing and revelatory account of a notorious revolutionary terrorist's career that rivets the attention during every one of its 321 minutes. In what is certainly his best work, French director Olivier Assayas adopts a fleet, ever-propulsive style that creates an extraordinary you-are-there sense of verisimilitude, while Edgar Ramirez inhabits the title role with arrogant charisma of Brando in his prime. It's an astonishing film.

Like "Che," "Carlos" carries with it an unwieldy running time that will limit wide theatrical release, although it will thrive on television and DVD; the work's roots as a French TV production are what cost it a competition berth at Cannes, where it world premiered as a non-competing title in the official selection. On the other hand, the vast majority of people keen to see "Carlos" will certainly want to opt for the full five-hour-plus wide-screen experience rather than the two-and-a-half-hour theatrical version Assayas has prepared. And for all its rigor, "Carlos," unlike "Che," produces real movie-movie excitement, action, sex and suspense, which will help generate a considerable worldwide public.

This review continues after the jump.

Carlos, born Ilich Ramirez Sanchez and later popularly known as "Carlos the Jackal," allegedly due to a copy of Frederick Forsyth's "The Day of the Jackal" having once been found among his belongings, is a Venezuelan Marxist whose first steps on his violent path came in league with radical Palestinians in the early 1970s. Taking significant financial backing, first from Saddam Hussein, then from Syria, Libya , East Germany and eventually wherever he could find it, Carlos pulled a few, mostly botched actions before killing two French investigators in Paris before staging his most audacious operation, the kidnapping of OPEC oil ministers in Vienna in December, 1975. Implementing isolated attacks from bases in Eastern Europe and Syria, he finally had nowhere to go but the Sudan, where he was snatched by French agents in 1994 and removed to France, where he remains in prison under life sentence.

Among so many other qualities, one element hat vividly pops out from the film's vibrant fabric are the numerous scenes in which government officials from Arab and Eastern bloc countries directly order, sponsor or otherwise facilitate terrorism and mayhem in other nations. Some may shrug that the world has known about this sort of thing all along, but it's quite another thing to see, on the big screen, then-KGB chief and future Soviet leader Yuri Andropov directly ordering the assassination Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, or top Syrian leaders telling Carlos it's time to give the French a dose of their own medicine by ordering bombings in Paris.

I can't recall ever seeing scenes quite like these in any movie, and they are bracing. One can only assume Assayas and co-screenwriter Dan Franck, working from an original idea by producer Daniel Leconte and with the assistance of historical advisor Stephen Smith, have done scrupulous homework where such matters are concerned, just as they have been clinically honest in documenting Carlos' vain interest in liposuction and the concurrent testicular malady that enabled his abduction.

Just about everyone who populates this film is, or was, bad news; the young revolutionaries are violent, delusional, childish in their self-absorption, heedless of human life while professing solidarity with "the people" and handy with all the leftist slogans of the time. To be anywhere near Carlos' ever-shifting inner circle, "comrades" had to be genuinely committed--he chides anyone he finds unserious as only playing games while he, essentially a revolutionary by birth, considered himself at war.

The film's scope, range and ambition are incredible; it's set in at least 16 countries over a 21-year period, and at all times features the characters speaking the languages they would have spoken in the relevant situations--Carlos himself shifts effortlessly among Spanish, English, French, German, Russian and Arabic. An untold number of supporting and bit players pop vividly to life for however many moments they're onscreen, and the film maintains an exceptional balance between a relentless forward movement and a certain artistic stability--the jagged jump-cutting of editors Luc Barnier and Marion Monnier keeps one's attention from flagging at any time, but even though the photography is nimble to the point of feeling on-the-run, the camera is always in the right place to maximize the effect of a scene, with Assayas and cinematographers Yorick Le Saux and Denis Lenoir having resisted any temptation to indulge in jittery, whiplash effects.

But perhaps Assayas' greatest accomplishment is making you feel you've entered Carlos' world. Of course, this is drama, "fiction" rather than documentary or re-enactment, but the film is so convincing that it persuades you this is essentially the way it was. There are few so completely transporting historical movies, in that it drops the viewer down in another world and time without evident artifice, doctoring, nostalgia, revisionist thinking or overt political agenda. Those with a continuing stake in the causes involved or their own memories of the times can be counted upon to dispute this or that, but as a time machine "Carlos" functions brilliantly.

When first seen here, at age 23 in 1973, Ramirez's Carlos has the same handsome, slightly puffy features as the young Brando (with hints of Mark Ruffalo and Val Kilmer in the bargain), along with the same impudent, bad boy look in his eyes that simultaneously questions all authority, suggests that anything is possible with him and is highly seductive. Ramirez, who played Keira Knightley's boyfriend in "Domino" and had small parts in "The Bourne Ultimatum" and "Che," takes complete command of his role from the outset, displaying the ease and confident movements of a large cat, suggesting an ability to never tip his hand until he plays it and indicating the mental agility of a chess master who thinks many moves ahead. It's a beautifully naturalistic performance, shorn of theatrical mannerisms or grandstanding, other than those that might be displayed by the character at chosen moments, and one that ages internally as well as in the man's progressive bulk.

Carlos' early patron is Wadie Haddad (the compactly menacing Ahmad Kaabour), co-founder of the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, on whose behalf Carlos attempts the assassination of the Jewish head of Marks & Spencer in London. He's also involved in the background of some other botched jobs in England and on the continent, notably a hostage-taking at the French Embassy in The Hague in league with the Japanese Red Army and two tries at blowing up El Al jets with rocket-propelled grenades at Orly Airport.

Through it all, Carlos manages to keep a low profile and his identity a secret, while juggling attractive girlfriends and turning them on with firearms--"Weapons are an extension of my body," he explains to one. When the French police close in on him for the first time, however, the result is a scene that induces sweaty anxiety and tremendous uncertainty the way Assayas stages it, in that you have no idea what's coming.

The aftermath leads Carlos to South Yemen, where Haddad puts him in charge of a Saddam-financed plot to take over an upcoming conference of OPEC oil ministers in Vienna, put them on a plane to Algiers and kill the ministers from Saudi Arabia and Iran. It's a cliffhanger ending to the 99-minute part one.

The actual hijacking incident, which occupies roughly the first half of the 104-minute part two, represents a masterpiece of sustained suspense, although not in the conventional sense. Rather than presenting it in the expected hyped-up, artificially stimulated Hollywood manner, Assayas achieves something close to a sense of real time as he mixes moments of dynamic action with charged but quiet talks, such as when Carlos informs the Saudi that he will soon die, and an agonizing period of waiting aboard the DC-9 as it sits in Algiers, is flown to Tripoli, then back to Algiers, while complex high-level negotiations go on in the background, and the hostages and kidnappers both become spent with exhaustion and tension. It's a set-piece that lasts half the length of a regular movie and is utterly brilliant.

After returning to Yemen and getting kicked out of Haddad's organization, Carlos regroups with a small cell in East Berlin, then Budapest, from where he tells his patrons that he can launch operations anywhere. This is basically the beginning of Carlos "mercenary" period, during which he becomes a master weapons supplier between the Eastern Bloc and radicals elsewhere and freely operates under Syrian diplomatic protection. Assigned the Sadat hit, Carlos is furious when he's beaten to the punch, and some of his colleagues get arrested or begin to fall away. But he has reliable cohorts in Magdalena Kopp (Nora von Waldstatten), his girlfriend and, later, wife, and German stalwart Hans-Joachim Klein (Christoph Bach).

With Magdalena and numerous others, Carlos' relations with women are crucial. Dangerous and sexy, he is catnip to many, whether they know who he was or not, and his ability to manipulate and control them is an enormous help. The scenes between Carlos and his women vibrate with mutual attraction, often accompanied by a teasing quality, adding a sexual charge to the politics and armed conflict of the main action.

Inevitably, part three, which runs the longest at 118 minutes and covers 15 years, is devoted to decline and fall; the support dries up, the operations seem more arbitrary and pointless, relations among comrades becomes fraught and Carlos, at 30, slides into dissolution on his way to becoming "a historical curiosity." Aiming mainly at French targets, the group is fractured by arrests and imprisonment and, once the Berlin Wall comes down, Hans-Joachim tells Carlos, "The war is over, and we've lost." After getting out of prison, Magdalena splits along with their baby, while Carlos takes sanctuary in the only place that will offer it, Khartoum, where he embraces Islam (after a fashion) and teaches T.E. Lawrence's theories of guerrilla warfare. No screenwriter could have dreamed up the bizarre details of Carlos' eventual vulnerability and capture, but they vastly enrich the dense of fabric of the film, which, like "Lawrence of Arabia," winds down as the life does.

Never dull or slack and crammed with so much incident, character and detail you can't possibly soak it all in as it charges past you, "Carlos" enters deep and dangerous waters as it takes on biography (of a still-living figure), international politics, terrorism, history, religion, sex and much more and handles all the issues with staggering dexterity, intelligence and skill. It's terrific.