NYFF 2010. Olivier Assayas's "Carlos"

David Hudson

"No spoilers here!" announces the New York Times' AO Scott. "The historical record will show that the real Carlos, implicated in dozens of attacks across Europe in the 1970s and 80s — most notoriously a bloody hostage-taking at an OPEC conference in Vienna in 1975 — is currently a guest of the French penal system. Convicted in 1997, he is serving a life sentence for the murders of two French officers, whom he gunned down in an apartment on the Rue Touillier in Paris, and of an erstwhile colleague of his from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). That event, and the OPEC operation, serve as dramatic centerpieces in Assayas's movie, a three-part miniseries broadcast on French television last spring and then released, at more conventional feature length, in theaters in France over the summer."

Scott then recounts the blows and counterblows in the debate that kept Carlos out of the Cannes Competition lineup this year, lays out the rather complex schedule for its Stateside release after a screening on Saturday morning at the New York Film Festival (where this Sunday, Assayas will be illustrating his personal history of cinema with a collection of clips) and, before settling down with Assayas in the garden of the filmmaker's house in Saint-Rémy-Lès-Chevreuse, "a quiet town south of Paris," for a longish profile in the NYT Magazine, places Assayas in "what might be called the middle generation of post-New Wave French auteurs... He is the author of a slim memoir called Une Adolescence dans l'Après-Maimai being the talismanic month in 1968 when to be young and French was very heaven — and has a skeptical, post-60s approach to politics and art. His films — there were 12 features before Carlos, as well as shorts and documentaries — are cerebral and personal but also highly eclectic and sometimes characterized by a cool, sleek eroticism. They fit into established genres, and yet they don't. Carlos is a globe-trotting thriller; Late August, Early September is a tale of 30-something romantic indecision; Cold Water is a coming-of-age story; Irma Vep is a behind-the-scenes comedy about moviemaking; Clean is a melodrama of recovery. But in each case the stories veer away from expectations, and nearly every scene carries nuances that thwart assimilation."

"The ongoing cinematic obsession with terrorism reflects a number of deep-seated tensions within popular, as well as political, culture," writes Richard Porton at Moving Image Source, and a brief history, from Griffith through to the present, follows. Then, Carlos: "Assayas's epic thriller is a subtle piece of political analysis that shrewdly appropriates genre conventions. A director who both acknowledges Guy Debord as his primary intellectual influence and displays affection for quirky twists on Hollywood and Hong Kong cinema in films like Boarding Gate (2007), Assayas is aiming his critique at both the mass audience and the cognoscenti.... If Steven Soderbergh's Che (2008), compared by J Hoberman to Rossellini's history films, resembles a sober treatise on guerrilla warfare, Carlos often verges on black comedy — particularly since the protagonist proves to be more of an ineffectual bungler than the brilliant mastermind enshrined in journalistic folklore."

In Slant, Nick Schager finds that "the film consistently undercuts, if not outright derides, the pretentions of its subject, suggesting time and again that revolutionary zeal was, above all else, driven by a base appetite for fame, power, wealth, and women. 'Workers of the world unite,' goes the company line, though Assayas's heavily researched, detailed script roots its character study in Carlos's fondness for himself, beginning with the sight of him caressing, and admiring in the mirror, his young, chiseled naked body, and ending two decades later with the now-pudgy cause célèbre undergoing liposuction to eliminate nasty love handles. Vanity is his guiding impetus, and thus, while Carlos's speechifying is rife with Guerilla Leader 101 handbook truisms, his outbursts of egomania exude authenticity."

"Because Carlos is, for the most part, an intellectual achievement rather than a visceral or emotional one, it's the kind of movie that can be far easier to admire than to love," writes Kenji Fujishima at the House Next Door. "But in its grand ambition and uncompromising intelligence, it is certainly not a film to easily dismiss. As Pauline Kael famously said about Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900, 'Next to it, all the other new movies are like something you hold up at the end of a toothpick.' So it is with Carlos. It's a monument, and like most monuments, it deserves — nay, demands — to be seen, contemplated, and argued about."


"Avoiding the trademark sentimentality that defined genre benchmark Army of Shadows, Assayas instead draws out comparisons to iconic tragic rockers of the 70s and early 80s," writes Sean Glass, tracking Assayas's use of key tunes throughout Carlos in the Brooklyn Rail.

At Cinematical, David Ehrich finds "it would be a real shame if people were scared off by the film's epic running time, as Carlos is ironically the most accessible of the Parisian auteur's films." Howard Feinstein, too, at Filmmaker, assures us that "this five-hour version moves rapidly. Like the energetic Carlos himself, it rarely slows down."

Earlier: The Cannes roundup.

Update, 9/29: "The tone is a thrilling cross between Steven Spielberg's jittery Munich and the decadent pathos of Boogie Nights," writes Joshua Rothkopf in Time Out New York. "Carlos is staggering; no more important movie will be released this year."

Update, 10/1: Sam Smith is justifiably proud to unveil the poster he's designed for IFC Films.

Update, 10/2: "Part 1 plays like a thrilling if straightforward biopic," writes Peter Gutierrez at Twitch, and Part 2 has that already famous OPEC meeting sequence. "Part 3 takes a fall-of-mighty approach as Carlos wanders, nomadically and somewhat Lear-like, looking for a place to call home but hampered by both past mistakes and new betrayals. There are plenty of interesting moments in this final act (including an explicit nod to TE Lawrence), but overall its abrupt jumps forward in time make the narrative flow feel way too condensed, like a kind of shorthand.... [I]t's a shame to see the same hand that made such deft, artful leaps in chronology in Summer Hours come up a bit short here. It's also a shame because Assayas handles so many other challenges so well in the course of the film, including dramatic shifts in emphasis and tone that would have been too daunting to most other filmmakers."

Update, 10/4: "Whether or not we're supposed to 'like' Carlos is a central question of Assayas's conception of Carlos," writes Jeff Reichert in Reverse Shot. "We're by turns (and perhaps somewhat too obviously) asked to be compelled and then repelled — he's beautiful, charismatic, self-assured, intelligent, yet perhaps luckier than he is good, crass, violent, and trite even in his most vital and dangerous period. In Assayas's more aggressively performance-driven works (Late August with its doe-eyed Mathieu Amalric, Boarding Gate's vampiric Asia Argento), the filmmaking is still usually the star; in the young Edgar Ramirez, formerly a bit player, now thrust onto the world stage, Assayas's camera seems to have met its match for perhaps the first time."

Update, 10/6: "Who is this guy?" For the Voice, Nicolas Rapold talks with Ramírez and Assayas about the real Carlos the Jackal.

Update, 10/7: Jordan Hruska talks with Assayas for Art in America.

Update, 10/8: "In the years since the Pentagon screening of Battle of Algiers," writes the L's Mark Asch, "the terrorist-as-hero paradigm has become as familiar as yesterday's headlines, as films from across the spectrum have grappled with how, and why, the Left descended from idealist insurgency into nihilistic terror in the space of a generation. Italy's Red Brigades, Germany's Red Army Faction and Japan's United Red Army have all gotten domestic treatments; Regular Lovers and Terror's Advocate were odysseys traversing the respective private and public domains of France's post-'68 hangover; Che case-studied 'the conditions necessary for revolution' and The Wind That Shakes the Barley and Paradise Now restaged analogous historical and contemporary discussions about the uses and limitations of political violence (with Hunger's suicidal implosion perhaps a bridge between the two); New Yorkers have seen revivals of La Chinoise, Robert Kramer's Ice and Peter Whitehead's The Fall, and the entire Spirit of 68 series at the Walter Reade — which ran concurrently with Weatherman Bill Ayers's return to the network news. And now, from France — Algeria's old colonial master and the cradle of radical thought — comes Olivier Assayas's Carlos, a film that, by sheer dint of running time... promises something like a definitive reckoning with the recent history of revolutionary violence. It's not, maybe because nothing could be, but Assayas's tracing of the trajectory of the terrorist known (but not here) as Carlos the Jackal makes for an obsessive immersion."

Update, 10/9: "There is much to admire in Carlos — its easy sweep, its sense of history, its vintage Citroens," writes Troy Patterson in Slate, "but also it's a multi-dimensional portrait of a hollow figure."

Update, 10/10: "Initially Carlos was meant to be a 90-minute examination of the terrorist's capture in Sudan in 1994. Once Mr Assayas... came on board and read through the extensive research that had been accumulated, however, he saw other possibilities." Larry Rohter talks with Assayas for the New York Times.

Updates, 10/11: "Shot by shot, scene by scene, it's a fluid and enthralling piece of work," writes New York's David Edelstein. "Both in flashy globe-trotting thrillers like Demonlover and in melancholy meditations on impermanence like Summer Hours, Assayas returns to this theme: the unbearable lightness of internationalism."

Matt Singer talks with Ramírez for IFC.

Update, 10/12: David Thomson talks with Assayas for Sight & Sound and ST VanAirsdale interviews Ramírez for Movieline.

Updates, 10/13: Rob Nelson in the Voice: "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... 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."

"You will not be bored, ever," promises Joshua Rothkopf in Time Out New York. "Hesitantly, we'll add that a much shorter (and less interesting) version of Carlos will play at Lincoln Plaza. Skip it and commit to the one at IFC. The apex of director Olivier Assayas's already impressive career, it's a landmark of pop politics taken to extremes."

And Glenn Kenny talks with Assayas here in The Daily Notebook, while Time Out New York's David Fear interviews Ramírez.

Updates, 10/15: "Part richly conceived time capsule, part intentionally blurred biopic (Mr Assayas is too smart to try to solve the riddle of this sphinx), Carlos is of its self-conscious historical moment and ours, notably in its consideration of what might inspire an idealist to pick up a gun." Manohla Dargis in the New York Times: "It isn't that Mr Assayas doesn't have strong opinions, only that because he wants to move beyond familiar axioms — Carlos the monster, Carlos the cool — he shows history as it's happening, active and dynamic, rather than how it will be subsequently narrated. Those opinions come through forcefully and at times, with such bluntness, it can throw you. It's no accident that the restaurant scene (in which Ilich says of his group, 'We want to do good') is followed with him tossing an explosive into an Israeli bank in Paris, the sounds of shattered glass and screams trailing in his wake."

"In a style reminiscent of David Fincher's Zodiac, Assayas follows the chronology in a straight line, with names, dates, and places meticulously documented," notes Scott Tobias at the AV Club. "The last third of Sánchez's life doesn't quite cooperate; as he drifts into sloth and irrelevance, the movie drifts along with him. But Carlos is mostly tense and thrilling, revealing the poisonous side of global citizenship."

"From one event to the next, Assayas always keeps you wondering where Carlos is headed," writes Stephanie Zacharek in Movieline. "As so many of Assayas's pictures are — from the glorious Irma Vep to the weird, gritty Boarding GateCarlos is at least partly driven by restlessness. In Assayas' world, you can't work out problems, or understand people, when you're standing still: It's necessary to think on your feet, to keep all your sensors alight as you're moving from point A to point B."

"The world order the movie depicts has vanished, but self-styled soldiers and murky motives didn't disappear with the Berlin Wall," notes Mark Jenkins for NPR.

Sam Adams talks with Assayas for the AV Club.


"[Q]uite a few 21st-century filmmakers seem drawn to the shadowy and outrageous history of 1960s and 70s radicalism, especially at its outermost fringes," notes Salon's Andrew O'Hehir, who then lists Soderbergh's Che, Uli Edel's Baader Meinhof Complex, Koji Wakamatsu's United Red Army and Marco Bellocchio's Good Morning, Night. "Taken together, the overlapping stories in all those movies (which are intriguing at worst, and mostly terrific) describe the deranged, cloak-and-dagger underbelly of the late Cold War era — and remind us that 9/11 was not some isolated or unprecedented event, but another episode in a long-running, clandestine war that hardly anyone understands." As for Carlos, it "made me realize how badly art-house cinema has needed an infusion of the storytelling that has revitalized American episodic television over the last decade or so." And it's "one of the signal cinematic works of our still-young century."

Update, 10/16: "Music is incredibly important to Assayas personally, and the way he uses it in his films always reflects a multiplicity of concerns," writes Glenn Kenny, who then walks us through the soundtrack of Carlos' three parts, noting that the "music is mostly tensile, edgy, guitar-based punk or 'alternative' rock. It's appropriate to the action, yes, creating a particular kind of trebly tension that's like a more 'New Wave' version of the feeling created by Scorsese's classic-rock-with-cocaine sequence near the end of Goodfellas. But the temporal evocations the music carries are just as significant to making its themes felt."

Update, 10/22: Carlos opens in the UK today, so there's a fresh round of reviews: Peter Bradshaw (Guardian), Richard Brody (New Yorker), Xan Brooks (Guardian, viewing: 2'29"), Philip French (Observer), Tim Robey (Telegraph), Jonathan Romney (Independent) and Adam Sweeting (Arts Desk).

Update, 10/24: "Carlos certainly often behaves more like one of the bad boys of cinema than one of the severe jihadists who show up every so often in the movies waving machine guns and chanting about God," writes the NYT's Manohla Dargis. "Mr Assayas plays on that familiarity, partly by casting a lead whose good looks play into the common assumption (sometimes shared by critics) that the leading character, especially if he's a brooding beauty, is not just the story's hero but also its moral center. But while Carlos often looks like an Hollywood-style action film, like Che and The Baader Meinhof Complex, it also cannily employs some of the devices — including a sense of ambiguity and ambivalent characters — of the classic art cinema."

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