When does movie become mini-series?
If episodic biopics Che and Mesrine blurred the line, Olivier Assayas’ vivid study of Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, alias ‘Carlos the Jackal’, bombs it into dust.
The theatrical edit, at 160 minutes, outlasts most films. The three-part TV version runs to five and a half hours. Why so long?
“It only made sense in its entirety,” Assayas ponders, explaining his remit to “fill in the gaps, answer the questions and understand the demands” of the shadowy poster-boy of Cold War terrorism.
Carlos was the flamboyant figure who marched into Opec HQ to initiate the ’70s’ ballsiest hostage crisis, before being reduced to bombing campaigns simply to free his wife from prison.
With his cavalier womanising, globe-trotting lifestyle and operational panache, Carlos is an alt-007, but Assayas is keen to ground the man, not the myth.
Édgar Ramírez’s career-making performance combines multi-lingual fluency with a physique that shifts from taut warrior to paunchy wash-out.
Although conceived for TV, Assayas thinks big, shooting in CinemaScope with muscularity to spare. The default setting is an immersive, handheld panic; Assayas maintains the intensity of the centrepiece OPEC siege for over an hour.
But there’s something of GoodFellas in Assayas’ commitment to charting the era’s wider social history.
True, the weary third episode (mostly absent from the swaggering cinema version) can’t help but look flaccid after the earlier fireworks.
But the mini-series is vital to understanding Carlos’ decline into pathetic hucksterism. Like Assayas says, it’s a question of “entirety.” Otherwise he’d have made a movie to start with.
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