The French critic turned director Olivier Assayas has made genre films before, but their thrills and challenges have played out in references to other films. Carlos, his gripping depiction of the Venezuelan-born terrorist who dubbed himself "the Jackal," plays it straighter than any previous Assayas film. An epic account of the assassin's rise to rock-star notoriety, punctuated by an ironic telling of his Elvis-like physical decline, it employs a you-are-there immediacy not just to detail his crimes — including a brilliant restaging of his audacious 1975 OPEC raid — but to convey the festering of a life lived remorselessly under the gun.
The film originated as a French TV miniseries, and its extended running time (5.5 hours) allows Assayas to play with duration: the virtuosic 80-minute depiction of the OPEC hijacking is practically a stand-alone feature, while his later years play out as an agonizing slow fade — mortal infirmity as comeuppance. Edgar Ramirez shines in the title role, believably taking Carlos from his Che Guevara-wannabe youth to priapic egomania and finally corpulent middle age. Once again, Assayas addresses his pet theme of globalization, showing how a community of extreme leftists in the early '70s dissipated once the Cold War ended. The result is his best film since 1996's Irma Vep — a sweeping study of radical idealism curdling into opportunism.
With the complete Carlos playing for three days only this weekend in Nashville, the Scene recently spoke to Assayas in New York.
Scene: When did you first become interested in the project?
Olivier Assayas: It's a long story because it started two years ago when a French TV producer, Daniel Leconte, came to me with a two-page treatment. They were about how Carlos was traded by the Sudanese to the French for satellite images of guerrillas in the south of Sudan. A lot of the information proved wrong. It's very unlikely that it happened like this, but we didn't know it at the time. I wasn't really interested, because it was simplistic. It was told from the point of view of French bureaucrats. It was very much a French film. There were a few elements of dialogue with the Sudanese, but it was basically a small-scale French made-for-TV film.
However, the project came with documents that had been compiled by an American-French journalist, Steven Smith. He gathered most of the available information on Carlos. I thought it was amazing. I came back to Leconte and said, "I'm not really into the project as you presented it, but I think it's exciting if you can tell the story from Carlos' point of view. I don't understand why it hasn't been done before." So that's the beginning of the film.
Q: When did it become more of a character study?
I suppose that in many ways, that's the way I envisioned it from the start. The film went through different phases. Early on, I knew that I wanted to start with Carlos' first operation, when he's hired by the PFLP [People's Front for the Liberation of Palestine]. He started out as a Third World militant, with a certain dose of idealism. The film had to go all the way to the Sudan, when he's stuck in a backwater, left behind by history. For me, the film had to do with fate and the different ages of a man's life. At some point, it was pretty clear that there was also the possibility of making a movie with more universal interest in terms of how you can stay faithful to your youthful idealism and how you can be crushed by history.
Q: So you think it's all about idealism?
It's the story of a generation. It has to do with '70s leftists who, through changes in the world since, moved from idealism to pragmatism to downright cynicism. The story of Carlos is extreme. It's full of sound and fury and gunshots. But ultimately, it's also the story of a lot of individuals who became '90s cynics.
Q: Was Edgar Ramirez your first choice to play Carlos?
Assayas: He was number one on a list of one. He was obvious in the sense that I didn't know he existed while I was writing and it felt like a miracle that he did. I wondered if I could ever find an actor who was fluent in three languages, who has the same build as Carlos, who speaks Spanish with a Venezuelan accent, who is the right age. There were so many prerequisites that I sincerely believed I'd never find the right guy.
There was actually one actor from Venezuela who looked pretty close to the part, so of course I wanted to meet him. The minute I met him, it was obvious that he had to be Carlos. I couldn't get any closer than Edgar. Plus he happened to be a great actor. He was extremely smart and had a spot-on understanding of the issues in the story and the political complexities. I didn't have to make a political education for him. He knew about 1970s politics. The first time we met, we discussed the finer points of the story.
Q: At what point in the process did you settle on the music? What inspired you to use a lot of punk and post-punk?
To make a long story short, I used a lot of music by the Feelies until the very late stages of post-production. We got a message from a representative of the band that they were very uneasy about their music being used in a violent film about terrorism. There was no way of discussing it, but I managed to use the first song. I had to completely redesign the soundtrack. Then it was kind of obvious that Wire was the other option.
Q: I thought the way you used music was to underline Carlos' rock-star persona.
It's part of it. Carlos doesn't see himself as a rock star all the time. At one specific moment, yes: when he's driving out of the Algiers airport, with the press photographing him. He's the one "terrorist" who's self-conscious.
Q: One of the arcs that I noticed is Carlos' virility. It parallels his career. In the last hour, it's the complete physical destruction of his body.
For me, the story of the film is the body of Carlos and how it inflates and deflates. His undoing comes when it starts to fall out. So much about Carlos has to do with Latin machismo. All the problems he has at the end with his dick couldn't be made up. If you read it in his biographies, it's incredible, but it happened.
Q: One thing that struck me is that there's a lot of discussion of political pragmatism but little discussion of ideology. When Carlos does talk about ideology, it's in these aphoristic clichés like, "I'm a militant. I'm fighting for socialism."
It's pure rhetoric from the 1970s. He's a soldier, not a strategist. He basically runs operations that have been designed by others and hides behind a smokescreen. When I was writing it, I realized that I still spoke the language of 1970s rhetoric. I remembered it from high school.
Q: The film evokes a sense of community among the far left in the 1970s. Was that something you personally experienced?
Well, I grew up in the 1970s, so there was this connection to politics and a countercultural connection. They were actually two different strains, and most often they avoided each other. In Carlos, the international connections that defined the terrorism of the time had to do with Marxism as a unifying faith. Of course, it has to do with the fact that 1970s terrorism was multi-national. It connected Japanese radicals with Middle Eastern radicals and so on. Even though their actions were defined by Cold War struggles, the militants were recruited from this web of international leftists. I suppose I experienced it in some sense, but I was not exactly acquainted with the people who were involved in Carlos' story. I never came close to them.