Synopsis: Ilich Ramirez Sanchez is a central figure in the history of international terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s, from pro-Palestinian activism to the Japanese Red Army. At once a figure of the extreme left and an opportunistic mercenary in the pay of powerful Middle Eastern secret services, he formed his own organisation based on the other side of the Iron Curtain which was active during the final years of the Cold War. Carlos is the story of a revolutionary internationalist, both manipulator and manipulated, as he is carried along by the currents of contemporary history and his own folly.
Clever film cuts through cult figure.
FRENCH FILM FESTIVAL: There is a famous photo of the man known as Carlos that first went around the world nearly 40 years ago. Newspapers dubbed Carlos ‘the Jackal’ after novelist Frederick Forsyth’s slippery, anonymous and fictional hired killer, a man who worked in the cause of political extremists. Then, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Carlos was already notorious as a ‘soldier’ in the Palestinian cause (amongst others). But the photo, more a mug shot, is a long way from the movie, or even the media idea, of a hard-boiled murderer. In the black and white shot, Carlos wears a leather jacket and appears chubby, bespectacled, and bored. He looks like a bank clerk with a bad haircut.
That well-known photo appears on-screen at the end of Olivier Assayas’ long, fascinating and often brutal film about Carlos and it’s a fine tweak of irony; this is a movie all about images. Assayas’ film portrait of Carlos is a mosaic of a man who cultivated a personal style contrived for effect. (Incidentally the version previewed is the 2½ hour version, not the 5+ hour mini-series which debuted at Cannes last year). Carlos is a whole cast of personalities and perceptions embodied in the one figure. Here, Carlos is a tough-guy-lover, a lean militant, a fat has-been, a pragmatic strategist, and impulsive ideologue. Through out it all he is a supreme egoist who remains, strangely, rather naïve. In short, ‘Carlos’ the über-terrorist is, the way Assayas tells it, a myth.
At the beginning of the film a title explains that the movie is a fictionalised version of Carlos and his exploits. This isn’t a movie about the inner life of a terrorist; it’s a movie about power, or the illusion of it. Assayas’ cool and clever film eschews psychology, and most of the conventions of the biopic as it covers 20 years in Carlos’ life, the bits where he spent most of his time shooting people, blowing things up, hijacking planes and, if the movie is to be believed, seducing a string of beautiful women.
In one way this is a pity. Given the savage kick of what is on offer here, it’s tantalising to imagine what Assayas would have made of Carlos’ early family life. Born Ilich Ramirez Sanchez in 1949 in Venezuela to a lawyer who named him after Lenin, he was educated in London and Moscow; the facts suggest that Carlos was raised on Marx and revolution. Or, at least that’s how Carlos, the movie version, first pitches himself as a soldier to Wadie Haddad (Ahmad Kaabur), a leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. At first Carlos fails to impress his sponsors; in London he botches a hit on a PFLP target. Not long after that, Carlos is hunkering down in Paris. Betrayed by a comrade, he ends up killing some French policemen. (All alliances here are finally formless, all friendships expedient.)
Assayas and Dan Franck wrote the script, which is full of tiny telling details, terrific dialogue, much of it blackly funny, and some brilliantly imagined set-pieces, including one terrific 45 minute sequence dedicated to the one act of terror that made Carlos famous; the armed take-over of the 1975 OPEC conference in Vienna, which collapses into a farcical compromise.
In the aftermath Haddad boots Carlos out of the PFLP. Carlos, who sees himself as a dutiful son of the cause, is stunned. Like a tough headmaster, Haddad scolds the bold soldier as if he were a recalcitrant schoolboy. Indeed, this theme of Carlos as a fantasist, out of his depth, is an idea (and an image) that haunts the movie. Later Carlos goes freelance. Once the Cold War ends he is seen drifting from state to state looking for a place to settle (or hide-out), a terrorist for hire without a frontline who seems more worried about his love handles than the Palestinian cause.
Shot in bleached tones, the visual style of the film has a kind of quasi-doco immediacy, a brisk handheld feel that’s become fashionable for sophisticated political thrillers in the post Bourne age. Still, the best moments of Carlos aren’t the brilliant and plentiful action scenes, but the small intimate moments, often hinting at the tortured, rather odd sexuality of it anti-hero. In one bit Carlos, in foreplay, caresses his girlfriend with a grenade; in another Carlos stares at his muscular figure in a full-length mirror and strokes himself.
Given he’s playing a guy who’s a bit of a fake and a phoney, Edgar Ramirez as Carlos could have been an embarrassment, an exercise in bombast. But it’s never less than convincing (and technically brilliant, since he has dialogue in half a dozen languages). Vigorous, sometimes funny, intensely physical, this Carlos is narcissism personified.
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