The Curtain’s Undrawn: An Interview with Olivier Assayas on Carlos
by Genevieve Yue
Senses of Cinema
After his celebrated “return to form” signaled in 2008’s Summer Hours, a delicate chamber drama set amid the shaded gardens of a French countryside estate, Olivier Assayas’s latest, Carlos, explodes any such expectations of what form an Assayas film might take. Though the restless, handheld camerawork, tuned to a nervy post-punk score, is still present, here he spreads his canvas wider, covering much of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East over the course of three decades, or in viewing time, roughly five and a half hours, depending on the film’s various theatrical and television releases. The film tracks the rise and fall of Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, better known as “Carlos the Jackal,” a terrorist active during the 1970s and 1980s. Venezuelan-born, educated in Moscow, an instrumental figure in a number of militant leftist causes and later a mercenary-for-hire working from behind the Iron Curtain, Carlos, as Edgar Ramírez portrays him, is a dizzying, media-savvy, shape-shifting blur, as much a product of the Cold War politics as one of its most visible agents. With Carlos, the global trajectories expressed in Irma Vep (1996), demonlover (2002), Clean (2004), and Boarding Gate (2007) –and treated peripherally in Summer Hours and Les Destineés (2000) – accelerate and multiply, and, for the first time treating a non-fiction subject, Assayas also draws these currents into historical relief. While the film ostensibly focuses on the exploits of the enigmatic man at its center, it’s arguably more concerned with the dramatically shifting world around him, and more broadly the reorganization of European leftism after the heady days of May 1968, the disintegration of unified international struggle, and the way that generation, which is also Assayas’s, grappled with the revolution that never came.
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