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Saturday, September 18, 2010

Carlos (Olivier Assayas, 2010)

During long stretches of Carlos (and you can fit a lot of long stretches into three hundred and nineteen minutes), I felt the urge to compare it to Ted Demme's 2001 Scorseseholic cocaine "epic" Blow - partly because I maintain that the biopic is pretty much a dead genre, and the antihero-worship that Scorsese's most celebrated films have inspired of late hasn't so much resurrected the form as made themselves an exhibition in necrophilia, with all the discomfort that that implies. There's also the prefab ambivalence in Demme's portrait of George Jung, the is-he-a-loser/-tragic-figure/-visionary/he's-a-bit-of-you-and-me,-isn't-he shell game that's less the result of a multi-faceted appreciation of the subject than an awareness that, since no single argument or thesis will hold water, it's "Where's the lady?" all the way. There is a bit of that in Assayas's tale. A lot of a bit, actually.

With, to Assayas's credit, significant allowances. A handful of the director's previous features, particularly those that delve into his fascination with genre, exploitation, voyeurism, conspiracy, and violent crime (Irma Vep, demonlover, Boarding Gate), as well as those that wonder whether we are in charge of our destinies or if we are simply ants at an incomprehensible picnic (those films, to an extent, but also Sentimental Destinies), as well as those that are simply in search of lost time (Destinies and Summer Hours). You can safely say, then, that the architecture of Carlos has been on his mind for some time. If this doesn't result in a more nuanced take on the biopic genre, which I still say sleeps with the fishes, Carlos at least bears a far more advanced pedigree than Demme's uninspired saga.

The way Assayas keeps things popping (for over five hours, by which I mean for over five hours) also warrants a closer look: applying a roving-'Scope technique he's been honing for the better part of twenty years, Assayas's camera makes no clear distinction between intimate spaces and expansive ones, hitching the camera to the inertia of the narrative, but never quite taking his hands off the controls. The effect is a movie that's constantly on the move, weaving left and right - never going forward but getting there anyway. (Frequent title cards that tell us the date are often disconcerting, as they're accompanied by a feeling of "How did I get home from the bar last night?") More often than not, the camera goes into tight places, emphasizing the imprisoning status of the Jackal's legend, and foreshadowing his eventual (and ongoing) incarceration. Although Carlos hops the globe and there are plenty of super-wide shots of cities and open plains, most of the movie is spent in confined spaces: an airplane fuselage, a Paris flat, lounges and hideouts and tiny rental cars. Even the by-now-inevitable (yet judicious) moments when Assayas pitches the camera down a woman's cleavage or up her crotch offer no respite, comic, voyeuristic, or otherwise. When the final reel witnesses Carlos as a man without a country, booted from Syria to Lebanon and back again, welcome nowhere, it's a logical conclusion, well-worn but well-earned.

His unique approach to storytelling - scenes of suspense and bloody action are just another link in a long, deliberately-paced chain of events and non-events - furthers the argument that he can shoot anything, anywhere, with a budget that might cover the permits for a Hollywood shoot of the same story. Stylists and festival perennials like Assayas, who have developed rich, idiosyncratic ways to shape highly varied material - now dealing in chamber melodramas, now dealing in shoestring sci-fi - may not make it into the heavyweight class (with the exception of Irma Vep and Cold Water), but Carlos leaves a lasting impression, that of a historical figure, thought to be a mysterious, Mabuse-like emperor of crime, an evil, globetrotting playboy, the anti-Bond, etc., is no more than plankton in the geopolitical ocean. A self-righteous tiger shark at best. That this impression is conveyed not by lectures or a heavy reliance on title cards or spoken exposition (which is not to excuse the relentlessly horrifying dialogue, featuring such gems as "I fuck you good, but I am a man with needs!") but by Assayas's commitment to form qualifies the epic as a modest success.

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