Wednesday, 25 July 2012
(Olivier Assayas, 2010) Setting aside the politics, the approach to history, the glamour of the violence and the globetrotting for a moment, I love Assayas as a stylist. As befits a director who admires Michael Mann and Hou Hsiao Hsien and Vincente Minelli, Assayas is a stylist whose ability to infuse his scenes with a sensual charge is vital to the success of his films. The very first minutes of Carlos bear this out; the first shot is of a man rising naked from bed, a woman beside him. He dresses in the gloom and she sits up to smoke. You can smell that room, the chill on their skin, the warm sheets. The man meets a violent fate outside and that event is given weight by the reality of what has preceded it; this sets quite a tone for Assayas' Epic. The next scene finds the title character (played with authority by Edgar Ramirez) arriving in Beirut, and again that city is beautifully, swiftly evoked, a whirl of colour, the back of a taxi drivers head. We are located in this narrative already, we are there with this young, cocky Venezuelan who wants to head his own cell of terrorists in Europe. Almost 6 hours stretch before us. And they are the quickest 6 hours of cinema I have ever experienced. Part of a small but important group of films seemingly influenced by the likes of The Wire (I would suggest that Soderbergh's Che and Fincher's Zodiac are other high-profile examples of this school of cinema) to adopt a sort of Epic Intimate Historical realism, cataloguing events with little authorial viewpoint made overly explicit, allowing the flow of history to develop its own rhythm and meaning, Carlos benefits from its superb, innately fascinating choice of subject matter and its classy pedigree. The central passage - Carlos' 1975 attack on and seizure of the Vienna OPEC conference - is a riveting, pacy, brilliantly made mini-movie of its own, and it is often the tangents and solos of the material that bring its long stretches to life; Angie's (Christoph Bach) escape from the "Revolution", Nada's (Julia Hummer) fate, and Carlos' acquiring some middle-aged flab and bourgeois certainty in Budapest. But it is Edgar Ramirez's spectacular performance which holds the whole enterprise together. Ramirez portrays a complex man, passionate, intelligent and flawed, aware that sometimes he was shallow and weak but also vain and sensitive to his image. The scene in which Carlos first murders a man - a long, sweaty suspense set-piece - brings out the best in him as we see it all dance in his eyes through his mounting fear and exhilaration. But he and Assayas ensure that Carlos' private life is just as interesting as his "career". His many women and travels, his difficult relationships with various colleagues, all made human and grippingly real in this telling. We are with his Carlos throughout, maturing from ambitious freedom fighter to symbolic legend and beyond. The rest of the cast match Ramirez all the way, and Assayas' direction is always calm and stylish, assured and flawless in its capture of tone and atmosphere. For such a big undertaking, its a remarkably coherent work, Assayas' use of a superb Post-Punk Soundtrack and his stylish storytelling giving it an easy accessibility surprising in a film with such a complex story containing multitudes of characters and locations.