Directed by: Olivier Assayas.
Written By: Olivier Assayas & Dan Franck.
Starring: Édgar Ramírez (Ilich Ramírez Sánchez), Alexander Scheer (Johannes Weinrich), Nora von Waldstätten (Magdalena Kopp), Ahmad Kaabour (Wadie Haddad), Talal El-Jordi (Kamal al-Issawi 'Ali'), Alejandro Arroyo (Dr. Valentín Hernández), Christoph Bach (Hans-Joachim Klein 'Angie’), Rodney El Haddad (Anis Naccache 'Khalid'), Julia Hummer (Gabriele Kröcher-Tiedemann 'Nada'), Antoine Balabane (Général al-Khouly), Rami Farah ('Joseph’), Zeid Hamdan ('Youssef), Badih Abou Chakra (Cheikh Yamani).
The sheer length of Olivier Assayas’ Carlos, 330 minutes or five and half hours, will probably intimidate most viewers from ever seeing this masterpiece. But it shouldn’t. Carlos is a propulsive, energetic film – one that flies along for its entire length. Although this is undoubtedly the longest film of the year, it doesn’t feel that long at all. I am reminded of what Roger Ebert said about the length of films – no great film is too long, and no bad film is short enough. And this is a great film.
Illich Ramirez Sanchez will forever be known by his code name – Carlos (or perhaps Carlos the Jackal, a code name that Assayas refuses to name once during the running time). He was a Venezuelan born terrorists who came to Europe in the early 1970s, and soon rose in the ranks of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) to be second in command of the European operations. He became a media star in France when he killed three police officers and went on the run – he became internationally well known when he lead a daring raid on a OPEC Summit, where he kidnapped all the oil ministers, and got the Austrian government to give him a plane, and then took the ministers on a journey back and forth across Europe. He wasn’t arrested for either of these crimes, and while his higher ups in the PFLP hated the attention he got, he reveled in it. When he was thrown out of the group, he went into business for himself – taking contracts from pretty much whoever would pay him. The 1980s and 90s were a long, slow period of decline for him – with fewer and fewer people willing to contract his services, fewer governments willing to let him into their countries, and yet fewer intelligence agencies who actually care where he was. Like many a celebrity, he started from nowhere, become a star, and then slowly slipped into being a nobody again. When he was finally arrested, he was most likely relieved – at least it showed that someone still cared about him.
Assayas’ film documents Carlos’ actions from about 1970 until the time he is arrested in the mid-1990s. This is not one of the biopics who tries to trace Carlos’ psychological makeup – no scenes of him as a child being warped by his parents, no real insight into the man at all, but rather focuses on his actions. And to me, that makes the film all the more fascinating. Carlos was a man who fancied himself a revolutionary – fighting for the underclass – but unlike someone like Che Guerrva, jungle warfare didn’t interest him much. He had too much of a taste for the finer things in life – fast cars, nice clothes, nice cigars and women. The number of women he takes to bed in this movie is perhaps greater than the number of people he killed. He apparently never sees a contradiction between his fight for the underclass, and his own media celebrity – something he positively reveled in. It is fascinating to see Carlos transform in this film – the break seemingly coming half way through the second part, when he agrees to let the oil ministers go against the direct orders of his boss, in exchange for money. Although he would still claim to be fighting for the cause for the rest of his life, it becomes clear that to Carlos, his own wealth and fame have taken priority over everything else. He also undergoes a fascinating physical transformation – something Assayas shows us in multiple scenes throughout the movie of Carlos’s naked body, which goes from tight and toned at the beginning of the movie, and ending up bloated to excess by the end.
Assayas’ filmmaking here is impeccable, and puts to shame most action filmmakers in America. The film may seem more like the work of a filmmaker like Michael Mann than the same director whose last film was the highly acclaimed, French drama Summer Hours – about a family drifting apart after the death of the mother. And yet, the two films are undeniably of the same maker. Assayas’ obsession in his career has been about globalization – from films like demonlover to Boarding Gate to Clean to Summer Hours, this has been a constant theme. And nowhere is this more prevalent than here – a film that takes places all across Europe (England, France, Italy, Romania, Hungary, Russia, Algiers), the Middle East (Syria, Lebanon) and finally into Africa (Sudan), Carlos represented a global terrorist threat, long before we started talking about Al Qaeda. Assyas’s attention to detail – in the cinematography, art direction and costume design – is marvelous.
Perhaps the key to the success of the movie is Edgar Ramirez’s performance as Carlos. He is at the heart of pretty much every scene, and it’s fascinating to watch his performance evolve. Carlos was always a charming man – with his dealing with women (especially in one sequence involving a woman and hand grenade), and with everyone else. He was someone capable of talking anyone into pretty much anything. He was also capable of great violence without feeling, and of course self aggrandizement (some critics have complained that some of the dialogue in the film is a little too on the nose, but I think it fits in with Carlos, and the self mythologizing he does throughout his life). Ramirez is surrounded by a great cast – all of which hit the right notes – but it is undeniably his film, and the actor gives the performance of a lifetime.
Coming to end of this review, I am at a loss as to what to say to get people to see the movie. True, it is five and half hours, meaning that you pretty much have to give your whole day over to seeing the film. And yet, this is a film that is so well made, so fascinating, and at the same time so exciting that it demands to be seen in its entirety. I know that Assayas has cut a two and half hour version of this film for release in some markets, and I suspect because he did it himself, that it is a fine film. But Assayas has made a grand epic here – why would anyone watch to watch a trailer, when the whole thing is available. This is one of the year’s best. Miss it at your own peril.