By Armond White
Politics don’t matter to directors David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh and Olivier Assayas, whose Carlos, a lavish, gracefully-paced depiction of the terrorist Ilich “Carlos” Ramirez is strangely apolitical, even amoral. It’s part of the new affectless style—derived from hipster cool and leftist guilt that condemns the capitalist West for its culpability in colonialism and any advantage resulting from imperialist history. “Carlos” is the tag claimed by a South American killer trained in Moscow who pretends to want a social revolution on behalf of exploited workers, and exploits the Palestinian cause against Israeli Zionists. Played by Edgar Ramirez as a sexy sociopathic careerist, he is shown for his daring ability to insert himself into rebel organizations, kill OPEC delegates, cross borders, shoot police point-blank and seduce women. (“Treat weapons gently, tenderly. Weapons are an extension of my body.”)
Overall, Carlos is an elegantly made, yet unarousing history—taking the theme of Fred Zinnemann’s 1973 thriller Day of the Jackal and Steven Spielberg’s Munich and making those productions seem bourgeois by following Carlos indifferently, without so much as a moment of shock even when he massacres cops in front of his own bourgie, guitar-strumming allies. His outrages are meant to be viewed dispassionately. This isn’t a new concept of biopic, just something less satisfying because Assayas—like Fincher in Zodiac and Soderberg in Che—is a Flatliner. He creates cinema by extracting emotion, morality and political commitment.
The key to Flatliner cinema comes with an opening epigraph: “Despite a great deal of historical and journalistic research there remain controversial gray areas in Carlos’ life. This film must therefore be viewed as a work of fiction tracing two decades in the career of a notorious terrorist. His relations with other characters have been fictionalized as well.”
Reducing political terrorism to “gray areas” shows that its truth—and horror—are of little interest to Assayas and his brethren. It smacks too much of middle-class conventionality, calling for patriotic devotion and possible jingoism—those unhip cinematic codes, which, it should be pointed out, Munich movingly transcended.
Flatliners promote social detachment that, in turn, seems nihilistic, like the irresolvable crimes in Zodiac and the numbing chaos of Che. Yet Assayas’ fluid technique—radiantly photographed by Yorick Le Saux and Denis Lenoir—makes it chic and far superior to the mess of Mesrine. This is what romantic 1960s radicalism has come down to in the new millennium: long, drawn-out “process” and “drift” (as a highbrow art magazine praised Zodiac). Although Carlos is full of murder, treachery and sociopathy (the Venezuelan-born serial killer proclaims himself “the armed wing of Arab revolution”), this is a fleet-footed, light-hearted epic—an aesthetic alternative to the Old School movie epic that is referenced when Carlos invokes Lawrence of Arabia to a classroom of African rebels. Its series of haphazard, sometimes inept, massacres is Assayas’ extended exercise in dark whimsy, a terrorist carnival that sucks the political marrow out of the historical epic genre—his real Irma Vep.
Besides Ramirez’s striking performance, Carlos’ most distinctive aspect is Assayas’ perverse decision to score the 1970s-set story with anachronistic pop music from British and American post-punk bands of the 1980s. This helps distance the story’s political and moral significance by emphasizing the fun of post-punk rhythms and political affectation. If Wire’s “Ahead” didn’t have such stirring rhythms fit for exhilarating cinema, this gimmick would seem decadent and appalling—particularly for how it distracts from historical gravity, such as a clip of Yasir Arafat’s stunning UN speech: “I come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun. Do not let branch fall from my hand.” Does its inclusion mean Assayas’ endorsement or merely a period marker for a film too cool to announce such things?
As Flatliner cinema, Carlos lacks the psychological insight on terrorist activity that distinguished Marco Bellocchio’s Red Brigade tragedy Good Morning Night or Haile Gerima’s trans-European political sojourn Teza. Assayas’ divertissement preferences the genre’s superficial attractions—highlighting Carlos’ evolving physique over a sense of global menace. (Before his capture, Carlos was denounced as “a historical curiosity, a communist windbag who is of no use to Arab leaders anymore.”) His con-artist allure makes for the film’s best scene when he seduces German feminist Magdalena Kopp (crafty Nora von Waldstatten) to join his gang: “Are you ready to submit to it unconditionally?” he asks just before she blows him. Yet even his vanity is observed with Fincherian apathy.
Carlos gives hipsters Munich minus the moral conviction and dramatic cogency that hipsters fashionably distrust. It’s being presented in two versions: 330 minutes and 165 minutes, one as emotionally flat as the other.
Directed by Olivier Assayas
At IFC Center & Lincoln Plaza Cinemas
Runtime: 165 min.
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