Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
In “Carlos the Jackal” Olivier Assayas trains his restless intelligence on the subject of international leftism. In its complete form the work is over five hours long, and though it’s split into three feature-length episodes, it retains a sprawling, decentralized quality that suits Assayas’ sensibilities, which have always favored entropy over the aesthetics of what I guess it’s still okay to call the “well-made film.” This has occasionally gotten Assayas into trouble: his 2002 “Demonlover,” which begins as a corporate thriller, ends in a gobbledygook of narrative noise that seems like a too-easy “FU” to genre considerations. But in “Carlos” the entropy is controlled, with peaks and valleys spread evenly throughout the film so that it becomes part of the texture rather than an end in itself. That texture is important: the entire picture is set in period, roughly the ’70s through the late ’80s, and it focuses on terrorists who, being constantly on the run, are without country, home, or center. These folks are like energized electrons blipping into and out of the orbits of various national and ideological nuclei. Assayas is trying to bring us into their unsettledness.
Formally, “Carlos” is reminiscent of the work of French serial pioneer Louis Feuillade, which is to say its narrative is constantly dissolving and regenerating in ways that would seem careless if they weren’t so beguiling. (Feuillade, of course, was championed by the Surrealists.) But there are also reverberations of ’70s-era topical films like “Slap the Monster On the Front Page” and “The Mattei Affair,” pictures that took essay-worthy subjects — journalism in “Monster,” the oil trade in “Mattei” — and condensed them into works that had the tenseness and drive of suspense films. That “Carlos” is capable of evoking both the stretched-out arbitrariness of Feuillade and the propulsiveness of the modern thriller is perhaps essential to its fascination. I kept wondering, “How is this messy-seeming assemblage managing to hold my attention?”
Partly it’s a function of casting. In Edgar Ramirez, who plays Carlos, Assayas has a captivating focal point. Ramirez has a big-baby fleshiness that makes his indomitability seem almost farcical, and he manages to extend the actor’s desire to be looked at — and projected upon — into his characterization. You get the sense his Carlos would disappear if he wasn’t the center of attention; he’s a commando in training to be a rock star. To the extent that Carlos has beliefs they’re circumscribed by self-interest, though, like any good salesman, he’s a whiz at miming fanaticism for his clients’ ideals. In one scene he proclaims his allegiance to the church of Lenin; fifteen minutes later he’s converting to Islam in order to curry favor with his post-Soviet masters. Here Assayas seems to be making a point about the narcissism of Che-style revolutionaries. But in some ways the opportunistic Carlos is wiser than his true-believer cohorts: he, at least, recognizes La Revolución as an exercise in marketing.
Like his protagonist, Assayas is admirably clear-eyed regarding the whys and wherefores of diplomatic skullduggery. Side-stepping polemics, he and co-writers Dan Franck and Daniel Leconte busy themselves with graphing the interlocking complexities of Cold War politics, as though by filling in the blanks left in the official version of history they’ll cause the past to sprout new roots in our imaginations. This scribbly approach results in considerable narrative wobbliness — I’m still not sure why Carlos has a literary ally shot in the back of the head — but that’s a reasonable trade-off given the richness of the image that emerges, which is that of a shadow reality held together by a lattice of conspiracy. Filled with false fronts and nested influences, it’s the kind of reality often imagined by Fritz Lang or Jacques Rivette, though, in Assayas’ case, a concern for documentary nudges up against the fantasist’s urge to embroider. In some ways “Carlos” is as concerned with delineating history as Chris Marker’s painstakingly detailed eulogy for the left, the 1977 “A Grin Without a Cat.”
That such a knotty, unresolved picture about Cold War politics should appear now, when our sense of political history has been reduced to a smattering of simple oppositions and fairy tales, is interesting. Perhaps it’s even cause for optimism.