Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Assayas' CARLOS -- the guy and the film -- though worth seeing, disappoints

After wading through nearly six hours of CARLOS, in which exposition is followed by event, followed by exposition followed by event, and still feeling like I was getting a high-school-level treatise on one of the world's most famous terrorists, all I can say is that the great critical acclaim for Olivier Assayas' made-for-French-television film must be based on the fact that, yes, he did it. He's managed to pull together a lot of facts (along with some conjecture) and spliced them into a reasonably interesting, rapid-paced whole. Yet that very pacing -- due to the exposition/event style in which Assayas has chosen to tell his tale, often in very short scenes, together with a screenplay that manages to amass and then connect most of the dots using dialog that never rises above the prosaic -- eventually grows tremendously tiresome.

English is not Assayas' most productive language -- witness Clean -- and though he evidently had some help with the screenplay from Dan Franck, the whole thing is serviceable, if that. Working with his longtime editor Luc Barnier (as well as a new one, Marion Monnier) Assayas (shown at right) must have shot reams of footage in order to assemble what we see here. And yet, other than a few scenes of martial/relationship spatting, in which the principals emote, soap-opera style, much of the dialog is kept to an expository, emotionless level.  When, from time to time, Carlos is deprived of his role as top-gun terrorist or of his home base, his emotions rise; and a couple of scenes of the terrorist takeovers (one at an OPEC conference, shown below, another at an Embassy), there are higher moments, though even some of these ring a bit hollow, if not entirely fake: After a Japanese terrorist has pumped a lot of lead into a portrait of Georges Pompidou, a French official informs the gunman a bit haughtly that Monsieur P. died some months previous.

Part of the problem here is that, while the majority of Carlos's dialog is in English, it is English spoken by heavily-accented actors, each with his or her own special brand -- French, German, Hispanic, Middle-Eastern -- so that inevitably some (for me, much) of the dialog is lost. As soon as our ears become acclimated to one type of accent, another replaces it. I have no doubt that English is, and was during the time frames depicted, the international language, so it was necessary for Carlos and his crew, dealing with so many representatives from so many different countries, to speak it. I wish they could have spoken it a bit better -- or that English sub-titles has been provided throughout . (Fortunately, we watched Carlos via DVR from the Sundance Channel so we could track back again and again to catch a word or phrase that was missed.)

Assayas does here what he does in so many other of his films: shoot a bunch of scenes and hope they hang together. Sometimes they do (Demonlover, Summer Hours), sometimes not (Boarding Gate, Les destinées). His interest, as it often seems to be, is in showing us the world and how it impacts upon individual people and countries. Or, in the case of Carlos, how he impacts upon it. Fair enough, but in his choice of scenes, he's given us too much that's standard-issue, and he has not brought any kind of dramatic arc to the proceedings. It's all "and then this happened, and then this, and then this."

In Édgar Ramírez (above), the filmmaker has found an actor who, though much better-looking than the original, has a similar "beefy" quality that works well. A impressive as Ramírez is, the screenplay never lets him be seen at all fully. Instead he's preaching, scolding, attacking and fucking (or being serviced orally). He's always "on," as befits a character who was as much PR as anything else. The supporting cast is fine, as far as it can go -- which is generally only to the point of "Let's get this exposition out there." Even the film's quieter scenes (one of the better takes place between two revolutionaries, one who wants out -- below -- the other who wants him to stay), have a manufactured quality about them because they need to always be spilling out ever more exposition.

We hop around from country to country (though both the middle-eastern exteriors and European interiors seems awfully alike: hard to believe there was so little difference between the swank hotels and bars of western and eastern Europe).  We see how nations who seem to be divided on almost everything else, join hands when it comes to getting rid of Carlos and his crew. As usual, its about power -- who has it and how to keep it.  (And what's with Assayas' choice of music -- which continually calls undue attention to itself?)

Feminism was on the move during Carlo's time, and indeed he gives a bit of lip-service to it, while remaining without a doubt one of the true MCP's of the day. Of the primary women shown in Carlos -- Nada (below, played by Julia Hummer) and Magdalena (played by Nora von Waldstätten, above, left) -- the first is portrayed as an angry, little-girl nutcase and the second as a needy, whiny bitch. Earlier in the film, one of his women holds her own with the guy, taking him down verbally during dinner in a fancy restaurant. Well, enough of her!  Later a woman appears who might register more strongly (in addition to all else, she can shoot) but even she is soon relegated to courier status for the remainder of the film.

Interestingly enough, many of the characters here you will have seen elsewhere: Hans-Joachim Klein in Jessica Yu's Protagonist, Jacques Vergès in Barbet Schroeder's Terror's Advocate, and several, I think, in  The Baader Meinhof Complex -- to my mind, a much better piece of filmmaking.  In each of those films (granted, the first two are documentaries), characters seems stronger and events more memorable. It's as if, reversing the standard line, "he can't see the forest for the trees," Assayas proves fine with the forest, less so with its individual members (Baader Meinhof managed to get them both). Except, of course, for Carlos himself. This fellow, a very imposing tree whose trunk turned out to be cardboard, remains one more reason why the "revolution" never happened.

Carlos, from IFC Films, in the full 330-minute version, is playing currently in NYC at the IFC Center through Tuesday, November 2 only.  The shortened, 2-1/2-hour version is playing at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema -- though I can't imagine how condensed and exposition/event heavy this version must be! Starting October 20, it's also available On-Demand until January 20, 2011. (Though not yet, I think, in the NYC metropolitan area. We'll have to wait until after the theatrical run.)

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