The most thrilling movie I’ve seen at Cannes this year runs just a little over an hour, telling an explosive real-life story in minute, riveting detail and yet with brutal economy. Sharply written and beautifully directed, and featuring a star-making, coldly charismatic performance by little-known Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramírez, this miniature docudrama achieves a degree of nail-biting tension that the Bourne series would envy, while also functioning as a pitch-black comedy of errors and a genuinely incisive depiction of the ever-present struggle between idealism and pragmatism. It’s as expert as fact-based filmmaking gets—a tour de force guaranteed to leave audiences breathless. It wastes not a second. It arrives unexpected, it awes, and then it motors. It also constitutes maybe 20% of the total running time of the actual movie in which it can be found.
Clocking in at roughly five-and-a-half hours, Olivier Assayas’ Carlos, a sweeping portrait of terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (sometimes known as the Jackal, though the movie never uses that nickname), was created as a three-part miniseries for French television, though it’ll be released theatrically in the U.S., both at its original length and in a condensed three-hour cut. And for most of that epic journey, it’s an engrossing but fairly typical biopic, providing a visual representation of its subject’s Wikipedia entry. Assayas (Irma Vep, Summer Hours) has clearly done his research, and he keeps things moving along swiftly enough to avoid the plodding, and-then-this-happened rhythm endemic to the genre; he’s also found a terrific lead actor in Ramírez, who gives Carlos an ugly sense of entitlement at odds with his professed hatred for all forms of imperialism.
All the same, Carlos suffers, if to a lesser degree, from the same problem as most biopics: It isn’t really about much of anything. Great narrative works require drama, not merely a recitation of events, and while Carlos’ professional life inevitably reflects the enormous historical upheavals surrounding the end of the Cold War, the movie doesn’t make much effort to employ his psyche as a geopolitical microcosm. It just doggedly lays out everything that happened, beat by beat. The last hour, in particular, starts to feel interminable—Assayas is determined to depict Carlos’ downfall accurately, but it’s fidelity for fidelity’s sake, piling on details (like the fact that Carlos was being treated for a varicose vein in one testicle at the time of his arrest) that seem increasingly irrelevant.
Or maybe I was just feeling restless after the virtuoso slow-motion thriller that takes up most of part two. In December of 1975, Carlos and his gang stormed an OPEC meeting in Vienna and took more than 60 hostages—ostensibly to make a statement regarding the oppression of Palestine, but with the actual intention of murdering Saudi Arabia’s oil minister, Ahmed Zaki Yamani, and Iran’s finance minister, Jamshid Amuzgar. Assayas turns this bungled operation into a Middle Eastern Dog Day Afternoon, observing Carlos’ gradual metamorphosis, over the course of three hectic days, from strident ideologue to frazzled quarterback to hypocritical, self-justifying mercenary. Indeed, this single incident, as depicted here, is so thematically rich, so relentlessly gripping, and so overstuffed with fascinating minutiae (psychopathic underling Nada retreating to the rear of the getaway plane to cry; Yamani munching on the ham sandwiches provided by the cops, which most of the Muslim hostages can’t eat) that it makes the rest of Carlos feel almost redundant. I’ll be curious to see how the three-hour cut plays, but I’d also be perfectly happy to see the OPEC raid refashioned into a 90-minute masterpiece of its own. Grade: B- (but Grade for the OPEC-raid section: A).
Of the films that screened in Competition here three years ago, only a handful still have yet to receive any kind of U.S. release. I find it odd that one of them is Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine, which won the Best Actress award that year and was generally received warmly by critics—albeit not by the Wet Blanket, who found himself unable to make any emotional sense of it. And I’m having the same difficulty with Lee’s new picture, Poetry, which works beautifully on a moment-to-moment basis but falters badly when the time comes to assemble its various vivid elements into a coherent, satisfying whole. Or maybe I’m just doing it wrong, being a prose guy at heart. Emerging from a 15-year retirement, noted Korean actress Yun Jung-hee plays Mija, an elderly woman who impulsively signs up for a poetry class, then struggles to find inspiration in everyday beauty—perhaps because she’s too busy negotiating the terms of a financial settlement to recompense the family of a young girl who committed suicide after being repeatedly gang-raped by Mija’s grandson (for whom Mija cares) and his pals. Yun’s slightly dotty yet deeply felt performance is a wonder, but I can’t find a sensible context for it—some of her actions late in the film make no sense to me, and the early revelation that she’s suffering from the first stage of Alzheimer’s disease, forgetting the words of common objects, goes nowhere that I could discern. And while it’s plenty disturbing that the other parents in the movie seem blithely unconcerned that their kids committed multiple rapes, worrying only about how they can buy the dead girl’s family’s silence, I struggle in vain to work out how Lee intends this as any kind of devastating social critique, mostly because I can’t make it fit with the poetry class and the Alzheimer’s and the dude with cerebral palsy who demands a mercy fuck from Mija (did I mention him?) and so forth. It’s not that I can’t appreciate poetry, but a poetic juxtaposition’s truth and beauty generally makes itself felt even when its meaning remains elusive. In Lee’s last couple of films, I’m not feeling it. Grade: C+
Even more weirdly inexplicable was the ostensible Italian melodrama La Nostra Vita (Our Life), which seems to go out of its way to create potentially explosive situations and then dilute them of any emotional power whatsoever, leaving only a boisterous void. If your wife, with whom you’re still very much in love, suddenly died giving birth to your third child, don’t you think you’d be pretty upset about it? Apart from bellowing the lyrics of their favorite song at her funeral, however, Claudio (Elio Germano) seems strangely unaffected, quickly turning his attention back to his construction job, where he finds a dead Romanian night watchman buried at the bottom of a deep pit. Okay, there’s our drama, right? Well, no. The corpse’s ex-girlfriend and son turn up, and Claudio romances one and becomes a paternal figure to the other, but he pretty quickly blurts out the truth about his involvement in the cover-up (which he used to blackmail his boss into giving him a sub-contract), and he’s just as quickly forgiven—the whole thing is dismissed, forgotten, meaningless. Everything is meaningless, really. As the movie ended, at an arbitrary moment, I found that I couldn’t think of any reason why it exists, unless it’s some sort of avant-garde experiment meant to demonstrate how narrative cinema plays when divorced from drama, tension, plausible psychology, visual brio, and thematic interest. What’s weirder still is that the film, directed by Daniele Luchetti (whose My Brother Is An Only Child is much more robust), remains watchable throughout, holding your mild, indulgent interest as you await further developments. Only in retrospect, do you realize that despite all the hubbub, nothing. fucking. happened. Grade: C
Tomorrow: With the fest winding down, everyone’s last hope for a masterpiece is the latest by Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a.k.a. “Joe,” whose Tropical Malady was my fave in the 2004 Competition. But there’s decent advance word on Ken Loach’s Route Irish, and I’ll also be checking out the new Lodge Kerrigan (Clean, Shaven; Keane) and Fair Game, starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn as Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson. If I can’t enjoy one of those, it’s time to pack it in.