The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2010

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SEPT 2010 Issue

Olivier Assayas’ Carlos

New York Film Festival
New York

Carlos is Olivier Assayas’ five and a half hour epic tale of the ’70s punk rock terroris Illich Ramirez Sánchez, known by his nom de guerre Carlos, and later dubbed by the press “Carlos the Jackal.” The film presents a character study of a man who uses his talent, parrion, attitude, addictive charisma and a whole lot of luck for questionable and seemingly shifting causes—though that could summarize the biopic of any self-destructive rock star from the 1970s.

It’s easy to compare Carlos to biopics and faux-biopics, but Assayas and writer Dan Franck have resisted turning Carlos into a classic antihero in the vein of Scarface.  Not for one second does the audience want to be Carlos or be like him. For much of the film, I sat there thinking ugh, why does he have to do that, stop overcompensating you asshole, get over yourself and actually accomplish something instead of just talking about it.  Assayas highlights Carlos’s weakness, immaturity, and unconscious sadness. 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.

Early in the film, Carlos has the first of many discussions with a woman in his life.  He doesn’t like anyone disagreeing with him, especially not women, so their discussion turns into him just telling her how it is. Cue the opening chords of New Order’s “Dreams Never End,” a recurring motif in the film, and considering the lack of a traditional score, what could be considered “Carlos’ Theme.”

During Carlos’s first significant terrorist mission, the chords play while he personally, nonchalantly drops a bomb into a bank.  He walks away with the explosion behind him—cut to Carlos in a hotel bath, drinking a mini-bar bottle of whiskey.  In a series of jump-cuts, he gets out of the bath, pulls his hair back while looking in the mirror, and then sits down and fondles his chest while admiring his penis.  He leaves the bathroom and walks to the bedroom where the news on the television describes his attack earlier that day.  He shuts the TV, walks to the mirror, looks at himself and grabs his own testicles.

The lyrics of the song are never heard in the film, but they, and the band’s historical context, are familiar to much of the audience. The song was the opening track on New Order’s debut album, coming soon after the suicide of the members’ previous band Joy Division’s lead singer Ian Curtis.  In it, Peter Hook sings a response to one of Ian Curtis’s most famous songs, “Insight.”

“Insight” is one of Curtis’s gloomiest, if not best, songs. Its opening line “I guess the dreams always end, they don’t rise up just descend,” certainly foreshadowed his suicide.  “Dreams Never End” is both a requiem and a new beginning. Carlos too feels like a requiem.  This is a film for an experienced, intelligent viewer.  There is little exposition.  We’re conditioned from years of similar stories to know that Carlos is on a road to ruin, though Carlos reminds us of that with his line “The only thing I’m sure of is that I will be killed.”

The film opens with “Loveless Love” by The Feelies, a jangle-pop tune, following a car bombing where the audience expects a “Mission Impossible Theme” retread. But the punk soundtrack fits. Punk represents Carlos’s unlimited potential, with spots of greatness.  All of their highest highs are eclipsed by much lower lows and impending doom implicitly surrounding them.  Notorious self-destructive punks like Ian Curtis, Stiv Bators (The Dead Boys’s “Sonic Reducer” is used in Carlos) and Johnny Thunders have arcs interchangeable with Carlos.  These were guys who always seemed to be fighting for something unfortunately indefinable, and trying to prove something, but were brought down by the pressures of their success, drugs, girls, unexpectedly pregnant girlfriends, ruined friendships, you pick the symptom.

As an audience, we never know or care what Carlos is fighting for, and neither does he. He speaks ill of the “American imperialists” often.  He states “any enemy of imperialism is a friend of our struggle” but he never convinces the audience or a character in the film of anything.  He simply knows he is right, and feels arguing with anyone is beneath him, living only by action.  The result is that we are never sold on his fight as valiant.  He appears in the eyes of contemporaries and filmmakers as a mercenary.

But the film criticizes the institutions Carlos fights along with their opposition. Police forces and governments are corrupt, more concerned with bad publicity and losing money than the safety of their citizens.  Japanese associates of Carlos’s organization take a French Ambassador and the rest of his office hostage in order to gain the release of a member of their group from prison.  The French government only asks them to lower the ransom, rather than attempt to liberate the hostages.  Human life has its price. Later, the Hungarian government makes clear they don’t care what Carlos does or who he kills, only that nobody find out they are allowing him to reside there.

Nobody is more incompetent than Carlos and his bande á part though.  They try three times to fire a rocket launcher on an El Al jet, and miss every time.  Carlos may be a magnificent militant, but he has a poor grasp on the politics behind his work. Once he steps into the arena of the real politicians during his career-defining OPEC operation featured in Part Two, he’s out of his league and back on his heels.  After he stops fighting with guns and bombs, he’s solely concerned with saving face.

Yet the combination of Carlos’s savvy with weapons, dynamic personality, and disarming charisma make the character quite deadly.  In the climax of Part One, Carlos is fingered for the first time by another terrorist who has recently been arrested. 

Approached in the middle of a party with a group of hippies by three policemen led to him by one of his partners who was recently arrested, Carlos charms the cops.  He manages to get them to bring the snitch to him.  After gaining the trust of one of officers, and some drinking, he gets a moment alone to arm himself.  Shortly after his fellow terrorist is brought to him, he pulls his gun and shoots all four men dead on the spot.

This scene recalls the end of I Love You, Alice B. Toklas when Peter Sellers finally snaps at his hippie girlfriend.  He loses his cool in front of a family of hippies who’ve moved into in his living room, she labels his outburst a “bad scene.”  I have to give Carlos the cake on this one, for a little neurotic flip-out is nothing compared to just plain shooting up half the room.

Assayas follows most scenes of violence with sex.  Along with the previously mentioned manhood fondling, Carlos is depicted using his guns to pleasure a girlfriend.  Later, he gets drunk and holds a prostitute’s face on his penis, choking her until he comes.  She spits, and he beats her up.  Unfortunately for Carlos, this was a prostitute on the government payroll there to spy on him, another instance of Carlos’s weaknesses being exploited, as well as being his own worst enemy.

Assayas equates Carlos with the punks in New York, L.A. and England.  They’re all people born with wonderful gifts but also debilitating curses.  How Carlos turned into a man living off of anger and resentment for all of those around him is unimportant.  He denounced the American imperialists and anyone who tried to control people in the world unjustly, yet he insisted on eliminating anyone in his life who didn’t freely and openly acknowledge their inferiority to him—only one way to describe the overwhelming hypocrisy and stubbornness that defined Carlos.  He was easy to fall in love with but impossible to carry the emotion of love without pity for him as well.  The greatest tragedy is watching him at his best, then witnessing him go right back down again at double time.


Sean Glass

SEAN GLASS is his own worst enemy.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2010

All Issues