Phil on Film Index

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Review - Carlos

Carlos might have been made for French television, but this is no ordinary TV movie. For a start, it has been made by a real filmmaker, with Olivier Assayas cementing his reputation as one of the most exciting and mercurial directors currently working. He invests Carlos with an irresistible, propulsive sense of momentum that rarely flags across the film's five-and-a-half hour running time. This film is a good deal longer than both Steven Soderbergh's Che and last year's double-bill Mesrine, but Assayas' decades-spanning biopic somehow manages to feel shorter than both of them. It switches countries and languages with a remarkable fleetness of foot, and introduces characters at a dizzying rate as it hurtles through its subject's eventful life. Don't be deterred by Carlos' epic length, for this is one of the most audacious and exhilarating cinematic events of the year.

It also contains a central performance as good as any other you'll see this year. Édgar Ramírez plays Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, better known by his nom de guerre Carlos, and he is utterly convincing at every step of his character's journey, possessing a swagger and physicality that reminded me of Brando and De Niro in their pomp. When we first meet Sánchez, in the early 1970's, he is a man driven by a clear ideology – "Behind every bullet we fire, there will be an idea" he announces early on – and that conviction drives him to commit acts of terrorism in the name of the PFLP. In the film's final section, he is a bloated shadow of that young firebrand; a man living in a changing world that no longer has any use for him. Carlos' narrative unfolds in a traditional manner, employing a three-act structure (the French TV presentation was in three parts) that depicts his rise and fall in a familiar fashion. But Carlos feels so much more alive than most screen biopics, with Ramírez's performance and Assayas' bravura direction energising the film.

In the film's opening third, Carlos the character rarely stays still (at one point, we see how he quickly he loses his shape and sharpness when he is forced to lie low for a period of inactivity) and Assayas' restless, dynamic camerawork matches him stride for stride. The film moves fluidly from Carlos' political motivations to his womanising and acts of violence, and lends each encounter the same sense of authenticity and the same gripping tension. At times, admittedly, the ceaseless rush of Assayas' filmmaking can leave us struggling to catch up, particularly when supporting characters – introduced with onscreen captions announcing their name and affiliation – appear and then disappear so abruptly. The director is less interested in explaining background details and offering exposition than he is in simply showing us Carlos the man and letting us experience his actions, but this approach can result in some areas of the film feeling murky and vague.

On the other hand, his style also fills Carlos with so many sublime moments, and it seems ridiculous to grumble about small deficiencies when confronted with filmmaking of this stature. In particular, Part 2 of Carlos deals almost exclusively with his most famous act, the taking of hostages at the OPEC conference in Vienna in 1975. Running to an almost feature length in itself, this is an indescribably brilliant piece of sustained filmmaking from Assayas, whose confident pacing and masterful control of tone develops and then maintains an electrifying sense of tension, even as Carlos and his cohorts sit motionless on an airport runway, their plan slowly crumbling around them. This sequence in itself would be enough to ensure Carlos' status as one of the films of the year, and as I left the screening room at this point for the interval, I wondered if Part 3 could live up to what had gone before.

I'm afraid to say it doesn't. That's not to say the third part of Carlos is bad – it's far from that – but after the explosive, sexy and thrilling action of the first two parts, it feels a little more laborious and it's the first time that Assayas seems to suffer from the constricting confines of the biopic as a cinematic storytelling form. It is fascinating to watch Carlos being cut off from his former allies as communist regimes fall one by one, and to see how lost this international terrorist is without the states that once shielded him, but it also feels like we're marking time as we wait for justice to finally catch up with him. The third act drag is a perennial problem in biopics that deal with the whole arc of a person's life, but it's particularly disappointing here after that life has been rendered so thrillingly for the preceding four-and-a-bit hours.

Again, however, I need to set those complaints against the frequent displays of the director's brilliance in Carlos, and the filmmaking comes out on top every time. I haven't even mentioned the roster of outstanding supporting performances, including Nora von Waldstätten as his wife and Julia Hummer as his volatile accomplice. I could have also gone into more detail describing sensational individual sequences, such as the Japanese Red Army's bank assault, Carlos' escape from the police after he is betrayed, or the botched attempts to blow up Israeli planes at Orly airport; there's simply so much here to digest. Carlos is available in two forms, both as a five-and-a-half hour version and as a cut-down 165-minute film. I haven't seen the latter, but I really can't imagine how you could chop almost three hours' worth of incident from this film without losing something special, because very little of it feels like filler. I'm not entirely sure if Carlos possesses the depth to match its length, but it's a ceaselessly invigorating cinematic spectacle, and an awesome directorial achievement.