Yesterday’s schedule was dominated by Carlos, Oliver Assayas’s three-part, five-and-a-half-hour miniseries about famous terrorist Carlos the Jackal (a Method-intense Édgar Ramírez). By just about any standard, the film is one hell of an accomplishment, an epic-length biopic made with verve and great skill. In scope, it’s about as far removed from Assayas’s lovely, modest Summer Hours as can be, and an impressive testament to his range. But impressive and great are not always equivalent, and Carlos is not without its problems.
To start with, it’s a biopic, and I don’t much like biopics unless they’re doing something genuinely radical with the form, which Carlos quite frankly does not. So there’s a lot of dutiful information-delivery and this-happened-then-this-happened dramaturgy. But unlike rote hackwork like Ray or Walk the Line, Carlos has an honest-to-goodness director with an honest-to-goodness artistic sensibility behind it. Assayas’s camera movements are elegant as always, as are his striking, unshowy compositions. He punctuates scenes with time-collapsing, oddly unsettling fades to black, and modulates energy and rhythm with typically impeccable music cues. And his action sequences are constructed with a plasticity and spatial coherence that Hollywood could learn a lot from.
None of this is clearer than in a sequence detailing Carlos and his cohorts’ 1975 raid on an OPEC conference in Vienna. Making up the majority of the second half, the sequence is a little over an hour long and is a brilliant, riveting tour de force, trapping the characters in tight spaces (a conference room and an airplane) and nailing beat by beat the progression of their frazzled emotions as the plan goes more and more to hell. In terms of sheer, sustained filmmaking force, little else at Cannes comes close.
That’s just one hour out of over five, though, and nothing else in the film reaches that level. I’m not sure it would even be possible to make a five-hour movie—certainly not a five-hour biography—completely engaging from start to finish, and Carlos contains lengthy stretches of downtime in which shapelessness or an over-reliance on biopic conventions flatten the drama. These are issues that might not be quite as pronounced when the film is viewed in installments on TV, but in one five-hour-long chunk, they’re unmistakable. I imagine that the proposed three-hour cut—which will likely be what plays in American theaters—will be an improvement.
In addition to Carlos, which screened out of competition, yesterday featured two competition titles, Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry and Daniele Luchetti’s Our Life. Poetry, Lee’s follow-up to his 2007 Cannes entry Secret Sunshine, isn’t half as lame as its rough outline—lonely Korea grandma learns to appreciate the beauty of the world through poetry—makes it sound. Opening with a shot of a corpse floating down a river, Poetry is, in fact, a rather odd moral drama; though its protagonist is Mija (Yun Junghee), a grandmother who takes a poetry class, that plotline is not the film’s primary focus. What is, unsurprisingly, involves the floating corpse, a teenage girl named Agnes who committed suicide after being raped by a group of six boys. One of those boys, Mija finds out, was her grandson. She is contacted by the fathers of the other boys, who tell her that Agnes’s mother has not yet pressed charges, and they want to put together a settlement payment to keep that from happening: $30 million, or $5 million per person. Mija must struggle to decide whether or not to turn him in and come up with the settlement money, all while dealing with her recently diagnosed Alzheimer’s.
Poetry is intriguing for a while, as Miji’s poetry teacher’s instructions to “really see” the world interact with her coming to terms with the boys’ crime—and their fathers’ attempts to cover it up. Lee seems to be suggesting that the ugliness of life can interfere with its beauty—its “poetry”—so we better try to appreciate the latter while we can (the purpose of Miji’s Alzheimer’s is a bit unclear, but it may relate to that). But as the film goes on, it becomes more and more loaded down with incident, with developments and subplots and character motivations that don’t, as far as I can tell, make much logical sense. It’s ultimately a little scattered, with characters and narrative strands that don’t really go anywhere or connect with anything else, like the first draft of a poem in need of some tightening.
If Poetry’s emotions are diffuse, Our Life’s are downright incomprehensible. Elio Germano stars as Claudio, construction worker who, while on the job, finds the remains of a Romanian watchman buried under cement at the construction site. Knowing that reporting his find to the police would result in the construction being shut down (the man was an undocumented worker), Claudio keeps it a secret. As if that’s not tough enough, Claudio’s wife dies while giving birth to their third child, leaving Claudio with three mouths to feed and not enough money to do it.
Pretty dramatic, right? Well, no, not really. Despite clearly being in love with his wife, it takes Claudio all of 10 minutes of screen time to appear to have totally forgotten about it. Same with the dead guy in the cement; in fact, he’s soon sleeping with the Romanian’s wife, apparently not torn at all about not telling her or her son what he knows. Everything in Our Life is presented in the same vaguely cheerful tone, including the tragedies; these bad things happen, are immediately dismissed, and end up having no consequences whatsoever. It’s like a Dardenne brothers movie with the moral and emotional stakes—stakes of any kind, really—completely removed. It’s incredibly bizarre, and from a dramatic standpoint makes absolutely no sense. Our Life is never boring, but that’s because it’s never anything; it just runs on, pointlessly, until it stops.