Ultra long, ultra detailed and yet only sporadically dull
French director Olivier Assayas currently has two versions of his historical epic Carlos playing in theatres. One is the real deal, 319 minutes long (the one used for this review) and a slim trim 150 minute version for the short attention span set out there. Those of you tough enough to endure the full length one will, by the time all is said and done, be struggling to pull yourself across the finish line. It’s an endurance test for the ages and it does you no favors by running out of gas during the final act. But we must give props to Assayas for daring to do something unique, here he’s attempted to take a historical story and present it as honestly as possible. He admits that some bits had to be fictionalized (duh) but it is all in the name of a higher truth. He hasn’t reshapen the facts and turned this into a coarse morality tale or tacked on an unbearable love story to woe women into the audience. Rather it’s a meditation on a difficult man who could never quite reconcile the fact that his political desire to fight for Marxist’s causes never quite meshed with his insatiable appetite for material wealth.
The opening segment romantically follows Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, aka Carlos The Jackal (Edgar Ramirez) on his rise to the top of extremist left wing terrorism in the mid-1970s. We follow along as he carries out violent missions with a seeming air of invincibility hanging around him. Assayas has more of an interest in the exciting gangster aspects of the film as opposed to the slower talkier moments which would be fine if it didn’t lead to him occasionally leaving key information about the back-story behind. After using a dinner table conversation with one of his lovers to serve as a preface for the entire movie (he brags about his accomplishments, she calls him bourgeois) Assayas jumps right into the action as we see Carlos blow up a bank and try to take down Israeli airplanes at a Paris airport. The first installment climaxes with in a tense showdown between him a former colleague that happens in a cramped apartment. It ends, predictably enough, in gruesome, cold-blooded gunfire and sets the stage for the next chapter in which Carlos is hired to ambush the OPEC headquarters to protect the interests of one Saddam Hussein.
Part 2 feels like a French remake of Dog Day Afternoon and is far and away the most enjoyable to watch. It opens with Carlos recruiting his team for the OPEC takedown and then quickly moves into the siege where, of course, nothing comes off as planned. One of his teammates is far too radical for her own good, foreign governments turn out to be wishy-washy, planes don’t fly as far as he might like, and, when push comes to shove, Carlos just can’t say no to cold hard cash. The middle portion shows the height of his career, how his mythology was built and then how it all began to crumble. To a certain degree there is a glamorization of the person and his antics at play here but make no mistake, this portrayal of Carlos is odious to the max. His treatment of women is beyond outrageous and would serve as a nice pushback against those whiners who saw The Social Network as an anti-feminist screed if they could only be bothered to watch something this complex. He’s a temperamental, trigger happy megalomaniac who never stops eating, drinking, smoking or consuming.
The final two hours painfully recreate the downward slope of Carlos’s career. The jig is up but he just can’t deal with that reality. Missions are botched, crew members are sent to jail, domestic and legal problems pile up, no government wants to give him shelter, and he has the Reagan administration breathing down his neck. If he were to look at the situation for what it really was he would realize that he had gotten away with too much for too long and that time had simply passed him by. In trying to cover a huge block of time Assayas lets the film slip away from him. There are a lot of factors that led to Carlos’s fall from grace and he tries to hit every one of them but not give any of them enough attention. Plus after putting in four hours of watching Carlos seduce women with hand grenades and shoot rocket launchers at airplanes it is hard to find the motivation to care about his marital spats and monotonous attempts to get the leaders of Hungary, Libya, Syria and Iran to let him set up shop in their backyard.
The director’s entire vision pivots around the central thesis that Carlos was, more than anything, a hypocrite who said that he was for a new world order but was really obsessed with status and careers and prone to over indulgence just like those he claimed to fighting against. When choosing which version to see there really is no reason to go for the kiddie table when a fuller, richer version is just as available. It’s a massive bite to chew and one probably best undertaken on DVD in the comfort of your living room. Assayas leans towards convoluted storytelling every now and again but I’m willing to forgive him for that just because of his sheer audacity in trying to bring serious yet cinematic history to the people. My only real regret is that too often it feels like every other gangster movie on the market. Yes, this one is deeper and tries to see it’s character for what he truly is (complicated mostly) but it’s still stuffed with gratuitous shootouts and constant paranoia over who to trust and who to kill.
Director: Olivier Assayas Notable Cast: Edgar Ramirez, Alexander Scheer, Nora von Waldstatten, Ahmad Kaabour Writer: Dan Franck and Olivier Assayas