Terrorist as rock star
The musical selections are just one of many hints that Olivier Assayas’s Carlos is no standard-issue biopic. The French filmmaker’s ambitious portrait of Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, a.k.a. Carlos, one of the world’s most notorious terrorists, is a breathtaking piece of work, a ferociously intense, in-your-face chronicle of a couple of decades in the life of the poster boy for revolutionary-chic terrorism back in the ’70s and ’80s.
There is no shortage of bloody mayhem here, from bombings to violent hostage-takings to assassinations, but Assayas — one of contemporary French cinema’s most original voices — throws us off balance by juxtaposing all of this with some of the better postpunk guitar numbers from the early ’80s, including tunes from The Feelies, New Order and Wire. Somehow it works, though I can’t fully explain why. The only time the soundtrack is fully in sync with the action is when a couple of German terrorists get into a gunfight with police to the tune of The Dead Boys’ classic slice of punk fury, Sonic Reducer.
But that’s vintage Assayas, who is almost certainly the only French auteur who has made both period romantic dramas and an alt-rock-flavoured flick, Clean, about a junkie that’s set partly in that most un-Parisian of cities, Hamilton, Ont.
What’s also intriguing about Carlos is the fact that not for a nanosecond do Assayas and fellow screenwriter Dan Franck make the slightest attempt to idolize Carlos. You’ll come out of the film thinking he’s a self-obsessed macho fellow who truly believes in only one cause: promoting the Carlos myth. That’s not to say Assayas’s Carlos doesn’t have much charm. He does. In fact, Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez — who is amazing — turns this killer into a rock-star-like figure who routinely wows women and world leaders. All are smitten with his ability to orchestrate major terrorist acts without so much as breaking a sweat.
Early on, he tells one of his many girlfriends, “You’ll be hearing my name a lot.” And his prophecy turns out to be all too true. This is a guy who is also happy to proclaim that “weapons are an extension of my body.” It’s that sort of self-aggrandizement that eventually leads to a break with his Palestinian backers, who, quite rightly, come to the conclusion he’s more interested in his media profile than anything else.
But it’s not just a portrait of Carlos. It’s a revealing (and disturbing) look at the geo-politics of terrorism in the ’70s and ’80s, an era in which European terrorist groups thrived, thanks in part to their cosy relationships with the leaders of many countries in the Middle East and the former Soviet Union. The final reel is an equally intriguing snapshot of what happens to these urban guerrilla fighters when, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, those Cold War alliances fall by the wayside.
Ramirez is in nearly every scene in the film, and he is just mesmerizing as Carlos. He goes from swaggering around, looking almost like a preppy playboy in the early section, to cutting quite the depressed figure in the last act, a man who has been abandoned by all his former allies and is now nothing more than a historical curiosity.