An auteur as chameleonic (and cool) as they come, French director Olivier Assayas has cruised through the costume melodrama (Les destinées), the surrealist noir (demonlover), the rock doc (Noise), the country soaper (Summer Hours), and whatever you’d call Boarding Gate if not an ash- and lava-spewing vehicle for the volcanic Asia Argento. Turns out all that genre diddling was actually foreplay for the big bang: Justly feted at Cannes, named for the globetrotting Venezuelan “revolutionary”-turned-killer capitalist also known as “the Jackal,” Carlos is Assayas’s gangster movie—or serial, if one takes into account its five-and-a-half-hour running time, which likely strikes a few of its many fans as being much too brief.
Most blatantly in this hefty, tri-part edition (a cut roughly half as long is also making the rounds), Assayas’s immensely skillful and thoroughly immersive biopic adopts the classic rise, peak, and fall structure of old-style gangster drama. And it bids to be the speediest 330 minutes in cinema history. Damned if this relentlessly globalist epic, which winds up wasted in Sudan, isn’t like a drug in that it keeps one’s pulse quickened for an unnerving duration.
Steeped in period detail, but sonically youthful when the mood suits, Carlos kicks off in 1973 Beirut with a Feelies tune (!) that establishes the crazy rhythms of one Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (Édgar Ramírez), 23-year-old soldier for Wadie Haddad (Ahmad Kaabour) and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Sporting chin-length sideburns and no shortage of ’tude, Sánchez incrementally earns the right to rename himself “Carlos”—first by shooting the VP of the British Zionist Federation, later by raiding the French Embassy in the Hague on behalf of the Japanese Red Army. A near-comically failed attempt to launch rockets into an El Al jet at Orly brings our antihero unwanted heat, but his pistol proves easier to aim, and he gets away clean.
From the start, this stylishly outfitted architect of Euro and Middle East terror attacks fashions himself the Mick Jagger of Marxist revolutionaries. Assayas’s early image of Carlos proudly standing naked in front of a window, admiring one of the key tools of his trade, says everything we need to know about the man’s unbridled narcissism. What’s amazing is that Assayas and Ramírez, having exposed the character so fully and so soon, manage to maintain our desire—to keep it up, so to speak—for the length of three movies.
More than an up-close inspection of a militantly suave sex-and-death machine, Carlos is a history of pre-9/11 terror in microcosm, equal parts psychological character study, geopolitical survey, and intellectual action movie. Ultimately, Assayas’s film seems critical not of terrorism per se so much as murderous power-mongering vaguely disguised as ideological zeal, a view that comes completely to light about halfway through.
Part Two—in which the Jackal and his tiny squadron seize control of the 1975 OPEC summit meeting in Vienna (on orders from none other than Saddam Hussein)—forms the thumping heart of the movie. Assayas’s intense, seemingly real-time mastery of the hostage-drama scenario builds to a virtual freeze-frame explication of that infamous photo of Carlos smiling triumphantly on the Algiers airport tarmac. Hired to terminate the oil ministers of Iran and Saudi Arabia, the revolutionary gets what he wants in the movie’s midsection—and it’s no radical victory except for his coffers.
Exit the lean anti-imperialist; enter the opportunistic glutton. Carlos’s increasingly conspicuous consumption may be a bit bluntly stated in the home stretch (he gives his post-rad girlfriend a Benz), but Assayas makes every kind of excess irresistibly entertaining. Indeed, the director means to catch us in the guilty pleasure of digging (or at least ogling) the hip killer, even when he’s sporting (or screwing) the benefits of his heinous crimes.
The film’s final part (i.e., The Fall) seems to have garnered the least critical admiration, but it’s Assayas’s strongest section—wearying, yes, but no less compelling for that. After the buzz of episodes one and two, withdrawal sets in. Displaced to Budapest (and then Amman and finally Khartoum), nominally protected by yet another government (this time Syria, at least for a while), Carlos gains about a hundred pounds and loses most everything else. The viewer, too, pays a certain price for the film’s addictive properties; basically, like the Jackal, we want it to be over.
Kaleidoscopic—spanning two decades, a dozen countries, and more than a hundred speaking parts in a handful of languages—Carlos is nevertheless a movie that one can somehow remember vividly for months. Much of this power is due to the whiplash widescreen cinematography (oft-mistaken for DV), the hopped-up editing, and, not least, Ramirez’s aptly arrogant, fully transfixing, Method-style turn.
Is there any “operation” that Assayas can’t execute? As jet-setting Carlos ended up watching the world spin from behind bars, Carlos suggests that the genre-hopping Assayas could maximize his own ambition even within the tight confines of a prison drama. Part Four, anyone?