CRITERION REVIEW #582 CARLOS (dir. Olivier Assayas) 2010 - PICK OF THE MONTH!
note: i’m trying to publish the really long reviews late at night so it doesn’t clog up your feed too much. it’s only 1 week per month, but i hope it’s not a bother. — d
The Film: (Note: Much of this review was originally published on Cinematical last year). Originally conceived for French television (where it aired earlier this year after premiering at Cannes) as a three-part miniseries, Olivier Assayas’ 5.5-hour Carlos follows the rise and lateral drift of Illich Ramirez Sanchez (a.k.a. Carlos), the infamous Venezuelan ex-patriot who contrived to play as pivotal a role in the Cold War as he possibly could, most memorably leading a hostage-taking assault on the 1975 OPEC conference in Vienna. The expansive portrait begins in the 1960s with Carlos (Edgar Ramirez) as a dissatisfied Marxist looking for some action to further his vague revolutionary ideals, and erratically canvases thirty years in its detached depiction of how this faux-revolutionary was really most committed to perpetuating the cult of his own personality.
Assayas chronicles Carlos’ formative years with a relentless energy, bouncing around from one episode to the next as Carlos dips a toe (and then dives head-first) into the underground. The lithe and jaunty camera is almost always in motion, achieving an inert velocity as it observes Carlos spearhead various operations and bombings — Assayas’ dogged desperation to keep up with his subject brilliantly exposing Carlos’ actions as those of a man with a greater need for action than he does for meaning. To that end, Assayas’ dormant capacity for pulse-pounding thrills rears its head in a big bad way, and the filmmaker has great fun punctuating Sanchez’s transformation into Carlos with various raids, explosions, and naked women. And oh, the naked women. While Carlos eventually ties the knot with the most naked of them all (Nora von Waldstatten as the gorgeously feeling, feline, and ferocious Ms. Carlos), we blankly witness him indulge in enough hedonistic, James Bond-inspired behavior to be suspicious of the revolutionary ideals he spouts at his comrades and hostages.
It’s high-wire filmmaking leagues removed from Assayas’ pleasantly languid Summer Hours, and it’s placed squarely on the broad shoulders of Edgar Ramirez. The Venezuelan actor looks like Roger Federer gone rogue, and dives into the role with sustained gusto, unafraid to portray Carlos as an unnervingly flat and explosively vulnerable man on a mission of his own design. Carlos makes for one of the most vain characters in recent cinema, a self-mythologizer on par with Scott Pilgrim (but with a different taste in hats), and it’s only because Ramirez is so quick to abandon his vanity as an actor that he’s able to infuse the legend with the magnetic verve required to make an involving film about such a self-involved guy.
Assayas humanizes the modern freedom-fighter in much the same fashion that Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette provided royalty a dimensionality that the facts of history tend to forbid of its cinematic depictions. His 319-minute film may occasionally fall victim to its own torpor during the anti-drama of its final episode, butCarlos is nevertheless a revealing look at self-diagnosed purpose - political or otherwise - and just how quickly time renders heroes as martyrs, and exposes revolutionaries as egotists. Carlos understands that history is made by people who we make into legends, and it lays that out with guns blazing.
The Transfer: Carlos looks good. Practically perfect, in fact. But then again, what did you expect? Carlos was shot in the last 2 years, and shot beautifully by Assayas’ two cinematographers — Criterion’s transfer preserves the deliberate tonal discrepancies between their work. Assayas elected to shoot on 35mm (despite the globe-trotting breadth of the project), and his confidently stylized use of the format allowed for a nuanced HD transfer that feels like a well-preserved portrait of the 70s, from the 70s. Some explosion, when preserved digitally, betray the project’s strained budget, but having Nora van Waldstatten in 1080p more than compensates for any such quibbles.
The Extras: When Criterion releases such a recent film, the extras are usually few and far between, as if there hasn’t been sufficient time for lore to accrue. But it seems as if the sheer scope of Assayas’ film — when combined with Carlos’ position as a historical figure — spurred Criterion to go all out, as they’ve created a lavish 2-disc set that’s bursting with great supplements. A 20-minute feature on the filming of the OPEC raid is an illuminating watch so far as it illustrates the surprisingly warm and calm working dynamics that characterized the production as a whole. The OPEC scenes provide a particularly exciting window to these things, but the feature doesn’t offer any particular insight as to how Assayas chose to broach this notorious event. Fortunately, Criterion devotes an entire 43-minute video interview to Assayas, in which the filmmaker is free to wax poetic on anything else you might want to know. Edgar Ramirez stars in his own 20-minute interview, a thoughtful testimony that suggests how the actor was so comprehensively able to embody this infamous figure. There’s also an hour-long French documentary about the life of Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, the wealth of archival footage in which provides a nice real-world counterpoint to Assayas’ sexy fictions. There’s a 1995 interview with German militant Hans-Joachim Klein (who rocks a disguise that is, um, less than convincing). And that’s it! Just kidding! There’s also feature-length documentary called Maison de France which recounts the 1983 bombing that Carlos orchestrated against the titular building in West Berlin. It’s an engagingly well-crafted document, but only the most committed Carlos freaks need apply.
The Best Bit: Cinematographer Denis Lenoir. The wide-eyed Frenchman provides approximately 8 minutes of selected-scene commentary, a fascinating feature that’s as cruelly brief as it is dense with insight and fun reveals. His candid discussion of the aesthetics and geometry of Assayas’ directorial approach is great, peaking with asides on frame balance and the sexual politics of lighting (of the Nora Von Waldstatten nude scene: “This scene was, uh, very interesting for me”). Lenoir also pops up in an interview on the second disc, which quickly becomes an oratory on 2-perf film, blown-out lighting, and how most DPs pan way too fast.
The Artwork: Criterion’s release is adorned with a slightly modified riff on Sam Smith’s note-perfect poster for the film, a hazy still which captures Carlos’ unique swagger and the enormity of his image. Criterion has tucked a thick, beautiful booklet inside of the digipak, the copy of which mercifully includes a timeline of Carlos’ life and exploits.
The Verdict: 92 / 100
Note: Hearing-impaired viewers should be advised that Criterion does not provide subtitles or closed-captioning for English-language dialogue with their multi-lingual releases. It is very uncool.