Thursday, October 21, 2010

Carlos and the body politic: a conversation with Olivier Assayas

He blows something up and then retires to a quiet room to admire his handsome and chiseled naked figure in a full-length mirror. We see him seduce a colleague by placing a grenade between her teeth. “Weapons,” he explains, “are an extension of my body.” Revolution turns this guy on—or is it simply the promise of spectacular violence undertaken with whatever sort of justification? He committed acts of terror, including murder and hostage-taking, on behalf a people located half a world away from his native Venezuela, and attained a very peculiar and confused sort of celebrity doing so. The celebrity would eclipse the revolutionary until confused celebrity was all that was left. He donned a Che beret. He smoked cigars from Fidel Castro’s personal reserve. He stockpiled weapons, gave orders, made threats and lived all over Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Saddam Hussein was supposed to have been a big fan. “You’ll be hearing my name a lot,” he ensures us, though he’s referring not to his given name of Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, but rather to his more austere nom de guerre: Carlos.

Carlos is also the title of Oliver Assayas’ 333-minute bio-pic, made for French television, starring the tireless and valiant Venezuelan-born actor Édgar Ramírez, and is now playing, with two intermissions, in cinemas. It opens today in Toronto at Bell Lightbox. With its focus on action, its frenetic post punk soundtrack, its jump cuts that jump just a few frames forward, as though our storyteller is at once impatient and doesn’t want to miss a thing, the film unfolds over an engaging and surprisingly fleet-footed five hours-plus. Assayas is working in a mode entirely divorced from the complicated familial exchanges, subtle emotional nuance and passages of pastoral tranquility that characterized his previous film, the masterful and heartbreaking Summer Hours. Like its eponymous central character, the flamboyant terrorist who came to prominence in the 1970s and would eventually be dubbed “Carlos the Jackal,” Carlos is a corpulent and muscular work, carefully tracking the evolution, or rather devolution, of the mind and body of a figure that is, as Assayas explains below, both utterly singular and representative of certain ideological shifts that erupted in the wake of 1968.

It was my great honour to interview Assayas, whose body of work is so prolific and diverse, and contains a couple of my favourite films of the last 15 years or so. Slim and electric, Assayas is like a wire. We met at a Toronto hotel. He wore a smart little cardigan over a T-shirt emblazoned with the cover art for Sonic Youth’s
Goo. He’s 55 and there remains something boyish about him. But his nervous manner of speaking is countered by his confidence and convictions, his volubility countered by the precision of his answers, even when delivered in his second language. A former critic and editor of Cahiers du cinéma, Assayas has no trouble talking about movies. What follows is longer than I’d planned, but if you’ve seen Carlos or know something about Ramírez Sánchez’s life you might find the initial exchanges interesting. If you haven’t seen it or don’t know his story, you might want to scroll down just a little.

Assayas on the set of Carlos

JB: You’re only a few years younger than Carlos, which would have put you in your late teens and early 20s when he first became active. Do you retain memories of him from that period?

Olivier Assayas: The Rue Toullier killings were for me very striking, as they were for any Frenchman at the time, because of their brutality and mystery. No one knew what had really happened or why. It was like lightning striking. It was very close to home in that it occurred in the Latin Quarter, which is where all the universities were, and I was a student at the time. I would walk those streets every day.

JB: Had you formed any opinion at the time about his activities?

OA: You couldn’t have an opinion because you had no idea who he was. He was from Venezuela. He wasn’t a Palestinian militant. So who was this guy? Why was he shooting French cops? There was no apparent rationale. There was no way of feeling close to whatever the cause was because the cause was unreadable. He was a cop killer. As a teenager, you know, maybe you’re not fond of cops, so you stupidly think it’s kind of cool that he killed three of them.

The real Ilich "Carlos" Ramírez Sánchez

JB: Between that period in the 1970s and your being approached with this project, had you kept track of him?

OA: Only as much as anyone who reads the newspapers. He had been again in the news in France later, when Magdalena Kopp was arrested and with the series of bombings that followed, supposedly done with the intention to set her free, though in reality it was more connected to the ongoing war between France and Syria. But at the time this was all a blur, because it was not established that Carlos was involved in the bombings and it was not widely known that Magdalena Kopp was his wife. There were just these Germans who were arrested in connection with a car bomb. We knew that they were arrested in the parking lot, that there was supposedly weapons in the car, that they tried to escape and to shoot the cops. All of a sudden Carlos sends this menacing message saying those guys are part of my group and I want them free. We didn’t know if it was the real Carlos or what his connection was to these two. Carlos would not say at the time that Magdalena was his wife. No one knew, because if they had she would have been interrogated. They would have never let her go. So I read about these actions, but the reports available rendered them completely blurred, full of contradictions. Carlos was just a bogeyman.

JB: Did this project seem to offer an opportunity to explore and perhaps critique a political ideology?

OA: To me there was a broader arc that concerned the story of a generation, this question of whether or not to be involved in the armed struggle. After 1968, people really believed that revolution was imminent. But the years passed and nothing happened. You had unrest and activism, but ultimately this revolution did not seem like it was coming. That was when militants started asking questions. Maybe they lacked the right approach. Maybe the solution was to take up weapons, as had been done in third world countries, or in Europe in the distant past. In France the conclusion was that no, it wasn’t a good idea. But in other countries, like Germany, Italy or Japan, that was the route they chose. Carlos was just one step ahead. When he was 19 he had a gun in his hand. He was fighting with the Palestinians in Jordan. He was militant and active at a very young age. So in a sense, he went faster and further than anyone else of his generation, but acted in the background of the political mainstream of the time. So I realized how emblematic his story could be of a particular idea that this generation had lingering in their minds. He is, of course, a very unique character with an exceptional fate, but somehow I realized how connected his fate was to the story of his time.

JB: A significant part of Carlos’ story is told through the body of your lead actor, Édgar Ramírez. His is a marathon performance and required a truly exceptional commitment. Did you have to use different tactics with him than you’d used with actors in the past?

OA: Frankly, Édgar was pretty much on his own. His input in this film goes way beyond embodying Carlos. He was a partner in creating this film. He had a vision of Carlos. He understood exactly what was going on. I kind of helped him and we discussed things, but these discussions were not frequent.

JB: Were you aware from the start of just how fundamental the link would be between Carlos’ shifting physicality and his shifting philosophy, between his sense of sexual potency and his desire for violence?

OA: It was always essential. For me, the film, or at least one layer of the film, was, as you say, the story of the body of Carlos. It’s a layer that’s nourished by historical fact. It’s highly relevant that at the end of this story everything falls apart, including his body.

JB: Did it require a great deal of negotiation to find the right ways to photograph Édgar’s body?

OA: Édgar was 100% open to basically anything. He went all the way with every scene, without blinking. Sometimes it was very tough on him.

JB: I understand he underwent therapy afterwards to deal with the trauma of playing Carlos.

OA: I only discovered this when I read the interview he gave for the press notes. I was surprised. But I understood. You know, the one thing that kind of disturbed me when I started working on this film was this question: Was I ready to spend a year and a half of my life with Carlos, who’s basically a very unpleasant character? Do I want to be in touch with the darkness of that character? I did not have any kind of easy answer for that. But meeting Édgar was key to solving the problem because, frankly, he was going to take over Carlos. He was going to lift that burden from my shoulders. I was in a better position because I was able to witness Édgar struggling to make sense of Carlos, to absorb the unpleasantness of the character. I think he did an extraordinary job, but I can understand why it’s been very hard on him. He had to think like and be like Carlos, which involved damaging his own body in the process, for a very long time, much longer than what’s typically demanded of actors.


JB: Your earlier work
demonlover has certain affinities with Carlos, being an international story and a political thriller, but what I find very interesting is that demonlover is very much characterized by the absence of connective tissue—it’s inherently elliptical—while Carlos is all about the fortifying of connective tissue. Did this aspect of the project excite you? Did it intimidate you?

OA: Basically, I like to do in movies the things I’ve not done before, so the more I feel intimidated, the more stuff I have no idea how to handle, the more exciting it is. That’s what keeps you alive. It puts you in danger. You have to reinvent your ways of approaching scenes, actors, and so on. The thing too is that the connectivity you’re describing is sort of what those times were about. There was this notion of collective action, of connection through ideals. Carlos can only function through organizing a group.
Demonlover comes from another age. It tries to grasp at something that was going on 20, 25 years later, a time when people are becoming more involved in their private, imaginary worlds, when ideology and collectivity is replaced by disconnection, when economic logic overwhelms the logic of ideals. Demonlover is about a world where politics are not relevant anymore, where the fluidity of money is more important than any political ideal, where real power is bestowed upon corporations rather than politicians. Which is pretty much what the modern world is about.

JB: The formal structure of
Carlos is obviously hugely ambitious. Did you have any models that inspired or encouraged you? Was Steven Soderbergh’s Che useful to you?

OA: Yes, it was. It’s a completely different film, but it was inspiring in the sense that, first of all, I enjoyed watching this four-and-a-half-hour film. It could have gone on and I would have been game. But in terms of the texture of the film, here is a movie that uses a mythical character—that uses the star power of this character—to deal with some very interesting issues.
Che is a case study in guerilla warfare, how it can be used to win a war and lose a war. The first part is triumphant, it’s about how you move from the bush into the villages, how you win over the peasants, how you enter the city, how you negotiate an urban guerilla situation, how you then move onto the capital and eventually win the war. The second part in Bolivia shows you exactly the opposite, how you never convince the peasants, how the terrain can be unfavourable, how the local politicians don’t support your actions, how the enemy has grown stronger because it’s come to understand your tactics, and so on. So it’s really a study in strategy, and this is something very few movies can deal with because it simply requires time. Strategy is about complexities, about small details, about understanding the connection between ideas and reality. The length of the film allowed it to deal with issues that shorter films cannot. Che gave me the conviction that I could shoot for something like that.

JB: Hm. It strikes me that, in a way,
Carlos is really Che Part III, in that you’re now looking at what becomes of revolutionary actions after the precedents of Cuba, after Bolivia, and going from Latin America in the ’50s and ’60s and into the Europe of the 1970s.

OA: Absolutely. That’s a very interesting way of looking at it. It’s like that famous phrase about how history repeats itself in the form of a comedy. It’s about how Carlos uses the image of Che at a later historical moment for his own ends. You have Che, who, whatever you think of his ideas, was kind of a hero. He was a theoretician and a revolutionary. He was involved in internationalizing the Cuban Revolution. He was ready to put his life on the line and wound up dying for his ideals. He was also a good writer and left a lot of reflections on his life and times. Carlos, by contrast, is a soldier. He’s not a thinker. He’s a guy who executes missions. He was very aware of his media image and knew it was beneficial to connect it to Che’s image, but it’s somehow pathetic.

JB: Was it always obvious to you how you wanted to end Carlos?

OA: It was pretty clear that the film would end with his arrest. His story really does end where we end it. He’d already been surviving himself for years at that stage. He’s become irrelevant.

JB: Kind of a ghost.

OA: Precisely—he’s a ghost of himself. So once he’s finally arrested, it was like something that just had to happen. He hardly even resists it, and no one will help him out, not even the Sudanese. I think even Carlos knew that this was the end of the movie.

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