6 February 2012
Early in Olivier Assayas’ 5½ hour epic Carlos (Carlos el chacal), we see Carlos the Jackal (Édgar Ramírez) get out of a shower in a Paris apartment and walk, dripping and naked, to a full-length mirror in another room. He wipes the water out of his eyes. He’s broad-shouldered and fit and stands with his feet apart, defiant. This shot seems at first to be a gratuitous bit of eye candy; after all, Ramírez has one of those bodies that Michelangelo might have used when creating his statue of David. But then the camera shifts and we see Carlos grab hold of his penis.
It wasn’t my first cue that Assayas is trying to tell us something, and that it has something to do with Carlos’ manliness, his sexuality, and the sexual charge of 1970s militant liberationist activism (or, in 2010s parlance, terrorism). Assayas is not being, ahem, subtle. We may not feel comfortable with Carlos, but the director keeps suggesting we recognize him as a kind of ur-man, a man with primal instincts, superior intelligence for survival, and big sexual appetites.
Before I continue, let me say that Carlos is a film I did not believe could be made just yet, and which makes me wonder if we’ve reached a true post-post-9/11 moment. I say this because of the film’s subject matter as much as the way it makes a terrorist the central anti-hero of the story. It’s a terrific and compelling piece of filmmaking, all the more so because you find yourself uncomfortably rooting for him.
Carlos is a prequel to the rise of al-Qaeda: Carlos and his legions of revolutionaries are working for the Palestinian cause in the wake of Israel’s Six-Day War, and they are always 10 steps ahead of law enforcement. (Carlos and his associates are Marxists, but it’s easy to see how his tactics if not his ideals were embraced by militant jihadists. “For me the only struggle that matters is the oppressed against the imperialist.” By the end he has converted, he says, to Islam.)
Assayas’ film makes us in turns awed and appalled, admiring and turned on — and all by a man whose propensity for violent chaos now seem abhorrent. In a 1970s world of lax security, Carlos and his partners walk into airports with missile launchers, hijack planes, kidnap the entire roster of an OPEC meeting. It’s truly stunning and shocking if you, like me, were too young to remember/know about any of this. (I think I finally understand why people loved Reagan and Rudy Guiliani for making the world seem safer and Disney-clean.)
I mentioned a couple of days ago that Édgar Ramírez is a looker, whereas the real Carlos (née Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, so named by his Marxist Venezuelan parents after Lenin) was not. In real life, Carlos looks like a slightly dweeby kind of guy. It’s hard to imagine he stands above average height, although it’s hard to know how tall he really is because photos of him seem to be either mug shots from his younger days in the 70s or photos of him sitting in court as a 60-something man. All of these photos, I might add, make him look like someone who might have a good (and perhaps slightly wicked) sense of humor. He’s prone to corpulence and a smirk that enhances the wicked look.
In contrast, Ramírez is broad-shouldered, barrel-chested, and Hollywood gorgeous; yet it’s not just his looks, nor that he’s utterly riveting to watch, and apparently incapable of smirking or displaying a sense of humor, that draws my attention. It’s that Assayas has created a different Carlos — a hunky, single-minded, and somewhat humorless sex king who seems taller than everyone around him. You’d never guess that actor Ramírez is 5’10”, because the way it’s filmed you’d think he was 6’3”. He’s riveting, charismatic, and unflinching, and he always seems to be towering over at the other characters with his steely gaze. It’s hard to imagine that Carlos might ever walk into a room without everyone turning to watch him.
The filmmaker continually draws our attention to Carlos’ sexuality and his casual misogyny. Assayas does so explicitly by getting Carlos out of his clothes and into women’s beds; and implicitly, by having him decisively dominate other men — whether he’s managing a crew of revolutionaries, talking with hostages, or negotiating with politicians or military leaders.
Women are convenient. They hide his weapons for him, agree with his positions. When he inevitably cheats on one of them or leaves her for someone else, she gets violently jealous, not understanding that “I am a man. I have my needs.” All he needs to do is move his hand between a woman’s legs, and she begins to writhe like a porn star.
When he meets revolutionary Magdalena Kopp (Nora von Waldstätten), for example, they speak briefly about the possibility of her working for him as a forger. But she wants more:
Magdalena: I would like to make myself useful in a more active manner.
Carlos: I don’t trust women. They never know how to keep their heads.
Magdalena: I see you’re not afraid of clichés.
Carlos: No, I’m not. Because there’s always some truth in them, especially concerning German feminists.
Magdalena: Well. I confess: I am a German feminist. Disappointed?
Carlos: Yes. Very much.
Magdalena, leaning back in a chair and casually exposing her breast: And what do you know about German feminists?
Carlos: Well, I know they are sexually liberated; that they sleep with men and women alike; and if you give them weapons you never know what can happen.
Magdalena: Hm. Are you thinking of Nada? She’s just been sentenced to fourteen years in prison.
Carlos: But she won’t stay there long. I usually don’t abandon my friends.
Magdalena: So I’m only worthy of your prejudiced ideas.
Carlos: Am I wrong?
Magdalena, shaking her head: I left my little daughter behind. I walked out on my petit bourgeois lifestyle. I did it to devote myself to the anti-imperialist struggle. [Walks across the room and retrieves a gun from her luggage.] And I’ve also learned to use weapons. [She cocks the gun.] Correctly.
Next thing you know, his hand is between her legs and she’s moaning as if it’s Debbie Does Damascus. If this weren’t such a serious film, that scene would make you think it was Pay Per View — and even worse that dialogue that discusses clichés would so quickly become one. Near the end, when he develops a testicular condition, the only rational reaction is, well, he had that coming, didn’t he?
If self-proclaimed feminists throw themselves at him, then golly, he must be a tiger in bed! Now, I’m as happy as the next person to watch Édgar Ramírez get it on with the ladies; but even given his lusciousness I still rolled my eyes at the film’s claim that he was masterful in the sack. Why? Because considering how much of the film was a fictionalization of Carlos’ life and relationships, director Assayas is deploying Ramírez ‘s hotness as shorthand to create a complex portrait of the real-life revolutionary.
What I’m hoping is that when you hear it framed in those terms, you’ll appreciate how cheap a move that is for such an otherwise high-quality film.
One of the scenes that might be true — insofar as the woman was an informer to the police — takes place in the film’s 3rd part, when Carlos flirts with a couple of prostitutes in a bar and winds up getting a blow job from one of them in the bathroom. When she moves away from him to use the sink, we see an out-of-focus Carlos standing behind her, staring at her with menace; that steely, square-jawed impassivity that makes him so dominant now appears truly psychopathic. It’s a great shot and not a cliché in the least, unlike the (invented?) scenes with Magdalena. Carlos comes up from behind the woman and whacks her, all of which she later describes to the intelligence unit. Now that seems like the kind of man Carlos might truly be: a man who wants women to service him, and who hates them enough to hurt them afterward.
My complaints about these clichéd plot points are for Assayas, not Ramírez, who’s terrific in this role. He portrays Carlos as a clear-eyed, unsentimental, unblinking radical who understands the power of violence and the violence of power. (And a cunning linguist: he moves in and out of the languages of Spanish, French, German, English, and Arabic with ease — and apparently it was only Arabic he needed to learn for the role.) But honestly, directors: figure out how to develop complex male figures without just having them get women into bed. Those clichés damage men as well as women — and more important, they make for lazy, and mockable, filmmaking. Figure out instead how to show us that a dweeby, corpulent guy can be charming and oversexed and complex without demanding that we gaze up at him, turned on by his lusty stereotypical Hollywood-style masculinity.
Assayas risks glamorizing Carlos in other ways — by backing up his exploits with a terrific soundtrack with such acts as early New Order, Wire, the Dead Boys and the Feelies. But that’s not my real complaint. It’s just that the director opts for exactly the kind of masculinity and cheap misogyny that would have appeared in a 1930s gangster movie. Sigh.