Friday, April 08, 2011


2010, France, directed by Olivier Assayas [Three episode mini-series version]

An absorbing, necessarily elliptical account of the career of the Venezuelan-born multi-national terrorist, Carlos isn't simply a biopic but an effective re-creation of the specific time of social ferment and debate during which such a figure could emerge. If anything, the running time of the mini-series isn't quite generous enough: while Assayas's central focus remains with Carlos, the side trips to explore the German extreme left wing have the potential to become compelling episodes in their own right, in the manner of Edgar Reitz's even more expansive 1993 social canvas Die zweite Heimat.

The film is especially compelling in exploring the contradictions between Carlos's own self-image - his experience of his actions, and his account of his motivations - and the actual success of Carlos and his fellow operatives. As depicted by Assayas, Carlos's planning is often haphazard and his negotiating skills flawed in the extreme, but he continues to believe in his own standing in the shadowy spy/terrorist nexus, as well as in his own skill as a leader, even where it's clear he's barely capable of controlling his own crew.

Assayas is always an astute user of music, and he deploys post-punk/new wave bands like The Dead Boys as a counterpoint to several of the film's most charged scenes - underlining the adrenalized experience of violence from the perspective of the perpetrator but also illustrating the way in which Carlos and his collaborators imagined themselves as media objects, complete with soundtrack, from the get-go. Indeed, it's in the smallest of details - the way a glass of Scotch is cupped, or the way that Carlos adjusts his sunglasses - that this obsession with self-image appears. It's an obsession that undermines Carlos's rhetoric of revolution at every turn, and which also marks him off as distinctly different from his more ascetic German colleagues. Those contradictions are acutely capture in Edgar Ramírez's terrifically committed performance: although he's a little too photogenic to be a fully convincing stand-in for the actual Carlos, whose magnetism was less apparent to the outsider, he embodies Carlos's sense of himself as a global, stateless actor.

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