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Carlos: Olivier Assayas

Swinging back to his international-thriller style (with a vengeance), Olivier Assayas's 5-hour-plus epic focuses on an equally outsized personality, Carlos the Jackal.

Carlos: Olivier Assayas


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Carlos, which is more of a trilogy than a single film, is a 5 1/2 hour film/miniseries (originally made for French TV) detailing three sections in the life of '70s super-terrorist Carlos the Jackal (Edgar Ramirez).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.


Carlos: Olivier Assayas


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.


Carlos: Olivier Assayas


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.

Olivier Assayas: In many ways, it’s the way I envisioned it from the start. The film went through different phases, but from very early on I had the notion of the arc of the story. I knew I wanted to start with Carlos’ first operation, being hired by the PFLP, and he’s a third-world militant with a certain dose of idealism. To me, it had to go all the way to Sudan, when he’s arrested as a has-been in some backwater, who’s been completely left on the sidewalk of history. So it had to do with the different ages of a man’s life. So it was clear that as much as the story of Carlos was fascinating, through the story of a very adventurous life of one man, we could make a movie that had a more universal interest in terms of fate, how you stay faithful or not to your youthful idealism, and also how you can be both carried and crushed by history.


Q: So do you think it’s a film about ideology?

Olivier Assayas:
It’s a film about the story of a generation. It has to do with the 70s leftist militants, who in a way or another, through the changes in the world since, have moved from idealism to a certain pragmatism to a downright cynicism. The story of Carlos is extreme because it’s full of sound and fury, and explosions and gunshots, but it’s also the story of his generation. A lot of individuals involved in idealism in the 70s became 1990s cynics.



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.

Olivier Assayas: Well, I understand the way you put it, and I agree with most of it, but I have a slightly different take on it. I feel that all my movies are dealing with one reality. In that sense, I don't see it as themes, or obsessions, or whatever—I see it as basically the way I try to make sense of the world around me, its contradictions, its conflicts, its evolution. So when I'm making movies that deal with the broader worldview—where I'm trying to describe shifts in society at a specific moment—and it can be Demonlover, or Carlos—it's the same world as when I'm making movies that are more focused on the intimacy of characters. Some are like the macro-cosmos, some are the micro-cosmos of how specific individuals inhabit that world.


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.


Carlos: Olivier Assayas


Q: Was Edgar Ramirez your first choice to play Carlos?

Olivier Assayas: I’ve been joking about it, but it’s the truth—Edgar was number one in a list of one. Edgar was obvious. He was obvious in the sense that I did not know he existed when I was writing, and to me it came as some kind of miracle that such an actor existed. I asked myself, am I ever going to find an actor who’s fluent in three different languages, minimum, who has the same build as Carlos, who speaks Spanish with a  Venezuelan accent, who is the right age—because, you know, the story starts with Carlos in his early 20s and we leave him in his mid 40s. There were so many restrictive prerequisites that I believed I would never find the right guy.


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.


Carlos: Olivier Assayas


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.


Carlos opens Friday at IFC Center in New York, and will also be available on demand starting October 20. Bring snacks: it's 330 minutes long!


Watch the trailer:


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