Stuart’s Log: CARLOS (2010)

October 17, 2013 § Leave a comment

Five-and-a-half hours covering roughly twenty years in the life of one of the most notorious revolutionary terrorists of his time, it’s interesting to think about how a project like CARLOS fell into the lap of Olivier Assayas and exactly what kind of movie he thought he was going to make. Assayas, depending on who you ask, is something like cinema’s ambassador of ‘global culture,’ the current international zeitgeist wherein disparate regions, dialects, and modes of experience seem papered over by a capitalist uniformity that knows no geographical boundaries. This phenomenon is explored in corporate thrillers that turn the genre’s usual streamlined aesthetics into something more hazy and hallucinogenic, the tunnel vision of international transit (the same insulating airplanes, taxi cabs, and hotel rooms no matter where you go) and the unpredictability of wayward transnational intersection causing a frenzied yet limited experience of the modern world that never finds a stabilizing foothold. It’s also explored in character-based dramas in which traditional familial bonds become hopelessly dismantled by a fracturing globalism.

CARLOS is Assayas’s first retrospective film in a good while, a recreation of past events whose emphasis on ‘history’ might seem to conflict with a sensibility that is so completely attuned to the present moment. Watching CARLOS, I realized how skillfully Assayas managed to sidestep this potential dilemma, not only because his style remains perfectly intact (the improvised camera movements, total emphasis on forward motion, and absence of any kind of steadied, objective perspective on the action) but also because his themes and preoccupations remain very much the same. Carlos (played by Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez), a Marxist revolutionary most famous for leading the raid on the Vienna OPEC conference of 1975, is in a certain sense fighting against the capitalist power structures that figure so prominently in Assayas’s other films. As such, he is constantly relocating, adapting to new environments,  and embroiling himself in diplomatic disputes. He experiences the world of the 70s and 80s in the same propulsive way that the protagonists of DEMONLOVER, CLEAN, and BOARDING GATE experience the present day. But whereas the latter characters are victims of and participants in a new globalism, wherein international relationships are less political than corporate/cultural, Carlos is a character proactively trying—and ultimately failing—to change a world deep in political and ideological crisis.

The thrill of watching CARLOS is not only the thrill of watching the past depicted with an up-to-the-minute immediacy—experienced as opposed to explained—but also the thrill of watching a masterfully orchestrated genre film, rife as it is with stunning action-and-suspense set-pieces (the OPEC raid lasts a full hour and never lacks for tension) and never anything less than compelling in its handling of plot and character. Alongside the film’s examination of a specific time and political climate is the story of a self-absorbed ideologue who fell from revolutionary glory to, come the fall of the Berlin Wall, a parody of his former self. For all of Assayas’s admitted uncertainty as to exactly what kind of film CARLOS was intended to be, the movie plays as a fully realized masterpiece, every shot in its proper place, no matter how haphazardly they were captured. Though its narrative perspective is never comprehensive—distorted as it is by Assayas’s characteristic sense of motion-blur—the film’s authoritative grasp of period, place, character, and theme is never once in question. – Stuart


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