Saturday, March 5, 2011


In Carlos, Olivier Assayas paints the terrorist as rockstar, a high-rolling celebrity, self-assured and charismatic. Considering we’re talking about Carlos the Jackal here, there’s probably something to this, even if the ensuing collision of sex and violence sometimes crosses into the absurd. Case in point: the scene where Carlos tells his girlfriend that guns are an extension of his body, and then proceeds to elaborate upon his argument by fingering her as she licks a grenade. Not that the rockstar life is all kinky, explosive sex. On his first mission, Carlos’ gun jams after only one clumsy shot (don’t worry, baby, we can just cuddle this time).

But that aside, Assayas has actually made a remarkably engrossing epic here—remarkable because this two-and-a-half-hour film is actually an abridgement of a miniseries that runs over twice as long. Perhaps that accounts for the rather breathless pacing as over twenty years is compressed together, but there’s still an inevitable sense that we’re sometimes missing something important. Gaps in Carlos’ life are often signaled by a slow fade to the black, one of which produces not only a wife and two children, but also a mistress. That’s one fruitful ellipsis.

“Behind every bullet we fire, there is an idea,” Carlos explains early in the film, and the phrase becomes an epitaph for his terrorist career. He begins as a communist supporter of the Palestinian cause, but as he goes deeper into the web of international violence, he begins lending his particular talents to whichever criminal state is willing to play ball. He lusts after fame, hungers for power, even as he argues his every action is for the cause. Fittingly, his years of hiding end when a French agent discovers him leaving a hospital after a liposuction operation—the man’s own vanity betrays him. There may be an idea behind every bullet, but that idea remains stationary. And all the while, the bullet just keeps moving farther and farther away from the power that first gave it motion. Violence always moves past any feeble notions of principle.

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