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The more things change, the more they stay the same. Olivier Assayas has made a fascinating career out of veering radically through some of the most opposite genres known to man—one day exploring web companies that deal in bizarre pornography (Demonlover), another conducting a character study of an ex-junkie (Clean). Mostly, however, Assayas seems to veer back and forth between two sorts of films that seemingly couldn't be further apart: sexy international espionage thrillers (Boarding Gate, the aforementioned Demonlover) and intimate studies of character and relationships (Late August, Early September and the sublime Summer Hours, his best film). As Summer Hours was Assayas' most recent effort, it only makes sense that he's back with yet another sexy international espionage thriller, and this time he's embracing the genre more than ever before (while at the same time, he subtly undermines it).
Carlos, which is more of a trilogy than a single film, is a 5 1/2 hour film/miniseries (originally made for French TV) detailing three sections in the life of '70s super-terrorist Carlos the Jackal (Edgar Ramirez). The film is split up into three parts, each of which can stand as a film on its own merits. Part I explores Carlos' initial hiring by the PFLP, a militant pro-Palestinian organization, and concludes with one of the more violent episodes in Carlos' history, where he killed two policemen in a friend's apartment. Part II focuses on the 1975 OPEC conference, into which Carlos and his comrades busted, taking the oil ministers hostage. Part III focuses on—and this is common knowledge, so no spoilers here—Carlos' downfall and ultimate capture by the French government, his current landlord.
What's fascinating about Carlos is that even though the film is, at first glance, a world apart from the nuanced relationships and country gardens of Summer Hours, the films in fact share much in common, due to the persistent interests of their maker. Like Summer Hours, Carlos is a film fascinated with the oncoming force that is globalization, a film that wants to understand how the increasing ease of far-reaching communication affects cultural and intellectual identities. In the film, which sports at least nine or ten different languages, we get a Venezuelan terrorist, with German and Japanese comrades, fighting on behalf of the Palestinian struggle by taking hostage a conference of Arab politicians in Austria, then negotiating their release in Turkey (after being unable to fly to Libya).
The networks of the terrorists themselves are insanely far-reaching, uniting militants all over the world. In the face of all this, Carlos remains somewhat apolitical, using politics more often as a self-mythologizing crutch ("I am a militant! I am a soldier fighting for socialism!") than as something that merits serious exploration and debate. Hardly a glamorizing film, Assayas in plenty of ways focuses—subtly—a critical lens on Carlos.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Assayas in a roundtable interview at the New York Film Festival, where the film played in Alice Tully Hall. The film opens Friday at IFC Center in New York, and will also be available on demand starting October 20.
Q: When did you decide to focus your film solely as a character piece on Carlos? When you compare this to other films in the genre, like Mesrine or Baader-Meinhof—this is much more character-driven.
Q: So do you think it’s a film about ideology?
Tribeca: You make a lot of very intense international thrillers: Carlos, Demonlover, Boarding Gate. You also do a lot of relationship-driven, character dramas: Summer Hours and Late August, Early September come to mind. What's interesting is that despite the differences in these genres, your interests—particularly in the push-pull of inevitable globalization against characters trying to retain some cultural or ideological identity—seems to be present in both sorts of films. So I'm wondering what it is about these different sorts of films that allow you to investigate these interests in different ways.
It's a very simplified way of putting it, but ultimately, I think that when I go far into the intimate, the more personal, when specifically I make a movie like Summer Hours, I don't exactly have it in me to go further than that in that direction. I feel that I went as far as I could in that direction. So just to revive the desire is difficult—my inspiration will drag me to something of a completely different texture, with a completely different perspective. I can't make Summer Hours 2 after Summer Hours. I get back there eventually, but it's cyclic—you have to recharge the batteries.
Q: Was Edgar Ramirez your first choice to play Carlos?
I looked into it and I realized there was one actor from Venezuela who seemed pretty close to the part. So of course I wanted to meet him. The minute I met him, it was just, like, obvious. He could not get any closer to Carlos. And he happened to be a great actor. It was very obvious that he was an extremely smart actor, and he had a spot-on understanding of the issues in the story, the political complexities. I didn’t have to do his political education.
Tribeca: Your music choices were interesting—a lot of punk, post-punk. It seemed like you were commenting on Carlos’ view of himself as this terrorist rock star.
Olivier Assayas: Well, that’s part of it. There are those Wire tracks at Carlos’ rock star moment. There’s one specific moment—he’s driving out of the Algiers airport, the press is waiting for him, and he kind of lowers the car’s window, looks at them, and he throws his cigar out, and then asks the chauffeur to drive. He actually did that. It’s just demented.
Tribeca: The vanity also came across in that scene where he’s looking at himself in the mirror, early on, checking himself out.
Olivier Assayas: Yes, that was very important, to have that scene. He’s the one terrorist who’s so self-conscious of himself.
Watch the trailer: