A specter is haunting Carlos (both the film and its title character), the specter of Che Guevara gazing down from his iconic poster like a pop-cultural patron saint, an image glimpsed often in early scenes, most notably on the wall of the Rue Toullier apartment where, in part one’s most stunning set piece, Carlos (Édgar Ramírez) guns down three French Secret Service agents and the man who betrayed him. Comparisons between the two men, and consequently the films that tell their stories, are therefore inevitable. Whereas Steven Soderbergh’s two-part Che tarted up its revolutionary philosophy in formalist finery, losing the resonance of personal passions and leeching away any sense of urgency or momentum in the name of rigor, Olivier Assayas’s bigger and bolder three-part saga infuses the geopolitical thriller with both dynamism and detail, an always precarious yet thrillingly executed tightrope act of balance.
If an epic can be called a poem “including history,” as Ezra Pound once defined it, then Carlos is most certainly an epic, an intricately wrought morality play from Assayas and co-writer Dan Franck that works in a vast amount of political and personal history over the course of five-and-a-half densely packed hours. It’s a testament to Assayas’s directorial acumen that the film’s energy rarely flags, and its length never feels overstuffed. Handheld camerawork alternates with locked-down dolly shots, a combination of you-are-there immediacy and a feel for elapsed time generated by longer tracking shots that comes together seamlessly in sequences like one depicting the pandemonium subsequent to an attempted RPG attack on an El Al airplane at Paris Orly International Airport, with the mad scramble of bystanders to escape the line of fire, and terrorists simply trying to escape, presented from what feels like about 12 different simultaneous perspectives.
Image has always informed insurgency, so that political acts of terrorism like Carlos’s hijacking of a 1975 OPEC conference are, at least in part, theatrical performances (for his debut role, Carlos adopted Che’s black beret and a leather jacket), but Carlos painstakingly stresses the chasm that separates representation from reality. Over the course of Carlos’s career, ideology rapidly gives way to idolatry; the image takes over. Whatever Ilich Ramírez Sánchez once believed, by the time his nom de guerre became a household name in the mid ’70s, his motivations had clearly shifted. In the aftermath of the OPEC raid debacle, Carlos is presented with a clear-cut decision: Accept what amounts to a $15 million bribe to spare the lives of his oil minister targets or carry out a mission that will almost certainly end in incarceration or death. Carlos takes the money and runs. In counterpoint to this egocentric sellout, there’s a subplot concerning German Revolutionary Cell member Hans-Joachim Klein (code name “Angie,” played by Christoph Bach), who, disaffected by the increasing violence of the movement and the rank anti-Semitism evidenced in the Entebbe hijacking, decides to quit the scene, mailing his gun and a letter of confession to a leading German news magazine, thereby supplying the film with a moral epicenter.
Over and above the dry rot of his conscience, Carlos presents a body of evidence for its eponym’s physical deterioration. Since the man was by all accounts a bon vivant and womanizer who prized creature comforts above most everything else, prompting intelligence agencies to dub him “the Peruvian playboy,” Édgar Ramírez allows self-presentation to serve as an ethical barometer, fluctuating his body weight accordingly, and adopting a variety of business-casual hairstyles and petit-bourgeois mustachios. After one of his preliminary successes, a fighting-weight Carlos nakedly preens before the mirror, lost in self-admiration. Later, hiding out with the FLPF, he grows a paunch, excusing his excesses with the line, “Inactivity doesn’t agree with me,” before throwing himself back into the fray. The man who proudly proclaimed to his hostages in Vienna, “My name is Carlos, you may have heard of me,” undergoes cosmetic surgery to remove his love handles. Vanity, thy name is Carlos.
When, early in the film, he tells one of his many lovers, “Behind every bullet we fire, there will be an idea,” his commitment to third-world anti-imperialist struggle may be more than just a pickup line, but, by the time he browbeats onetime Cell leader Magdalena Kopp (Nora von Waldstätten) into wallflower housewifery with repeated admonitions about revolutionary discipline, it’s clear the rhetoric is utterly self-serving. Never one to curb his wandering eye, Carlos reaches his nadir in a scene, combining sex, subterfuge, and sudden violence, that only Assayas could stage: Out on the town in Budapest, Carlos picks up a prostitute, forces her to perform oral sex on him in a public restroom, then knocks her to the floor. After angrily spitting blood-streaked semen into a sink, she’s next seen sitting in the backseat of a car surrounded by Hungarian agents, testifying to what she overheard.
Late in his career, rejected by former allies, hounded from country to country under pressure from the C.I.A., Carlos winds up a refugee of sorts in the Sudan, living under an alias and teaching guerrilla warfare to up-and-coming cadres. The indignity, however, doesn’t end there. Convinced that he will be assassinated in retaliation for his many crimes, Carlos lives from day to day in the expectation of a sudden death, but his ultimate fate is quite ironically to the contrary: Laid low by a testicular ailment, Carlos is abducted from the hospital by his own security detachment and handed over to the French. Fittingly enough, he who lives by the balls ends up pinched by the balls.
Despite the fact that it was initially commissioned for French television, with the limited budget and abbreviated production schedule that usually accompanies such an origin, there’s nothing in the least bit televisual about Carlos. The widescreen 2.35:1 cinematography, a tag-team effort from DPs Yorick Le Saux and Denis Lenoir, is stunning, even with the surfeit of blown-out whites and crushed blacks resulting from pick-up-and-go lighting schemes. Colors are vivid and dense, from the yellow and brown desert vistas of Lebanon, to the occasional blue skies and leafy greens of the countryside, and the blues and grays of London and Paris. The soundtrack, featuring clanging, shimmering soundscapes and hard-driving post-punk anthems alike, registers solidly. Subtitles, however, could be easier to read; an option that would cover the extensive English-language portions of the dialogue, what with the international assembly of accents accosting the ear, would have been helpful.
Another embarrassment of riches from Criterion spread over two Blu-ray discs. Since two of the film’s three parts are on disc one, the sole supplement here is a selected-scene commentary track from DP Lenoir that covers his contributions to part two. Disc two contains, in addition to the final third of the film, a 45-minute video interview in English with Olivier Assayas, an articulate and engaging raconteur, covering the usual bases: the genesis behind the film and the manner of its production, casting and location scouting, the comparative aesthetics of TV versus cinema, as well as a brief but probing segment on the ethical underpinnings of the historical biopic as a genre. There’s another interview with Lenoir, this time on the technical aspects of the lighting and camerawork, including the use of atypical 2-perf 35mm film stock as a cost-saving measure, as well as an interview with actor Édgar Ramírez, who discusses the similarities between his own background and Carlos’s, the historical research and physical preparations that went into the role, and offers a wealth of insight into Carlos as a man and media-made myth. A 20-minute making-of documentary on the OPEC raid scene rounds out the production history component of the supplements, but by no means exhausts the extras. Also on disc two are two documentaries that provide a bounty of historical and geopolitical background to help contextualize the film: the hour-long "greatest hits" career profile, Carlos: Terrorist Without Borders, and the feature-length Maison de France, which covers the 1983 bombing of a French cultural ministry in West Berlin, an episode not included in the film. Last and certainly not least, there’s the fascinating 40-minute interview, filmed in 1995 for French TV, with a heavily disguised Hans-Joachim Klein, who discusses in some detail the motives behind his defection from the cause.
A revolution, as Chairman Mao keenly observed, is not a dinner party, but the Criterion Collection’s richly supplemented Blu-ray transfer of Carlos is nevertheless cause for celebration.