In his three-part biographical epic Carlos, Olivier Assayas seems to have approached his subject—Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, the international terrorist known throughout the 1970s and ’80s as Carlos the Jackal—in a manner similar to the way Steven Soderbergh approached another leftist-revolutionary icon, Che Guevara, in his two-part Che. Like Soderbergh, Assayas seems to have decided that the only honest way to approach his enigmatic central figure is to focus obsessively on historical verisimilitude, stand back, and allow us to draw our own conclusions.
The theory behind taking such an approach, it seems, is to avoid the kind of facile psychological oversimplifications that tends to reduce most Hollywood biopics; think, for instance, of the way Taylor Hackford’s Ray turned Ray Charles’s guilt over helplessly witnessing the drowning death of his younger brother into a letting-go-of-the-past homily that magically seems to cleanse him of all his demons at the end. It’s an admirable goal, but, at least as it plays out in Carlos (and in Che, too), it also turns out to be something of a double-edged sword. Assayas doesn’t always provide us with the safety net of a palpable directorial point of view; much of the time, we instead get the unmoored, one-thing-after-another feel of history passing us by. That’s not meant as criticism; history, of course, rarely falls into easy three-act structures. But as a result of that strategy, there are sections of the 319-minute film that naturally are more immediately compelling than others. (Its third part especially flounders, though the aimlessness seems rather appropriate considering that it details the gradual loss of notoriety and revolutionary fervor into the kind of modest, petite-bourgeois existence Carlos had so vehemently railed against during his heyday.) A more pressing question, though, is whether there are any resulting revelations to justify its wholly intellectual gaze.
In Che, Soderbergh basically treated its subject as the revolutionary rock star that he was all the way until his execution in Bolivia in 1965; if anything, Soderbergh seemed more interested in the processes of political revolution than in exploring the human being underneath the icon. Assayas’s take on Carlos the Jackal is similarly exterior-based and as obsessive about intellectual minutiae, but Carlos, by contrast, takes a more pointed and critical gaze at the person underneath the icon—mostly because, as the film often suggests, Carlos himself eventually embraces his international celebrity, to the point that one begins to wonder how much he truly believes in the fiery socialist rhetoric he spouts. Does he believe in the political cause, or is he just a hothead who wants to get in on the action and claim all the glory? Assayas, to his credit, never fully resolves such questions, allowing Carlos’s actions, his contradictory behavior (he isn’t above betraying revolutionary ideals to accept money from governments if he feels it advantageous to the larger cause) and the sometimes disturbed reactions of those around him (“Life means nothing to him,” one collaborator says in private to another) to do all the talking. (It’s significant that never once is Carlos referred to in the film as “the Jackal”; there is not a whiff of mythmaking in this film.) He’s interested in preserving a certain sense of mystery about Carlos (honoring the mystique, in essence), but as he has especially shown in previous dramas such as Les Destinées and Summer Hours, he’s too restless and curious a filmmaker not to at least try to prod underneath that mystique, to see what one can discover about the man himself.
Because Carlos is, for the most part, an intellectual achievement rather than a visceral or emotional one, it’s the kind of movie that can be far easier to admire than to love. But in its grand ambition and uncompromising intelligence, it is certainly not a film to easily dismiss. As Pauline Kael famously said about Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900, “Next to it, all the other new movies are like something you hold up at the end of a toothpick.” So it is with Carlos. It’s a monument, and like most monuments, it deserves—nay, demands—to be seen, contemplated, and argued about.
The 48th New York Film festival runs from September 24 to October 10. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.