It feels unfair to contextualise a French film using a similarly-intentioned, latterly-released one from Hollywood, but the Mesrine duology, directed by Jean-Francois Richet, requires it.
Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) is the French John Dillinger, a cocky crook whose tremendous heists, prison breaks, and media manipulations weaved a real-life action film narrative, right to a bloody death. Indeed, his determined answer – “I rob banks.” – when asked early on by Quebec secessionist Jean-Paul Mercier (Roy Dupuis) what he does, curiously prefigures Johnny Depp’s murmured, “I’m John Dillinger, and I rob banks” from Michael Mann’s wham-bang 2009 film Public Enemies. However, the Mesrine two-parter, made up of Killer Instinct and Public Enemy No.1 (L’instinct De Mort And L’ennemi Public N°1), both released in France in 2008), is a uniquely slippery property.
Killer Instinct is super-stylish, bold and pace-y, careening through history and leaping over the years, bouncing between France, Algeria, Spain and Canada in the process, to tell the story of Mesrine’s rise to prominence and infamy. Once he’s back from serving in the French army, he dives head first into a life of crime, working for mob boss Guido (Gérard Depardieu), before decamping to Montreal, kidnapping an old mansion-bound gentleman, going on the lam to America, being apprehended in the shadow of Monument Valley and imprisoned in an oppressive high security prison and, eventually, breaking out. It’s all delivered, like that previous sentence, with a breathless (and graceless) sense of progression, with characters, issues and plot points picked up, dropped or discarded as each short scene gives way to another chapter in his bullet-ridden life.
This keeps the pace up, but gives all characters but Mesrine a wafer-thin presence, and does little to flesh out the film’s subject. Only a biopic, which can lean on history, and the cheap realism that comes with such an association, can get away with this shallowness.
That said, Cassel is a joy to watch throughout, embodying the character with a boisterous energy and keen intelligence, best exemplified in his first house job. Potentially rumbled by returning residents, he immediately adopts a broad impression of a police detective investigating the robbery, and promptly leaves the property with swag in hand.
Public Enemy No.1 fares better. Free from the whirlwind over-exposition and under-narration, the film relaxes back into Mesrine’s final feats. Scenes and characters are given room to breath, especially a tense, spot-on prison break sequence. Likewise, Mathieu Amalric stands out as Mesrine’s driven, serious accomplice, François, managing to share the screen with Cassel with a fair balance that has been lacking in the script.
The film is still uninterested in giving resonance to Mesrine’s exploits, family, friends and foes, but it eventually hones in on the man’s core contradictions. More performer than crook, he charms and smarms his way through life, wasting more breath and sweat on his reputation than anything else. Time in prison is spent penning an over-the-top, autobiographical account of his youthful exploits, and courtroom appearances see Mesrine jokingly appealing to the jury and spectators with a cheeky sense of camp. He is a showman, aware of his own mythology and public persona, a point hammered home by a recurring joke concerning the pronunciation of his name (is it ‘may-reen’ or ‘mez-reen’?).
Mesrine positions himself as an anti-authoritarian gentleman bandit, revolting against the system of exploitative banks and corrupt politicians, not unlike Dillinger. However, whereas Dillinger rose to prominence in an era of Depression – where robbing banks was a worthwhile statement – Mesrine inhabits the 1960s and 1970s, hubs of discontent and political extremism. As a gesture of solidarity, he pledges allegiance to Quebec liberation groups, and other terrorist-tactics organisations, yet, when he gets his hands on money, he spends it on cars and jewellery.
An ambiguous, flawed character, unsure of his motives, but sure of his talents and his uncomfortable demise, Public Enemy No.1 manages to craft something more nourishing than its predecessor, which was stylish but messy, but the overall results are still weakly non-partisan.
No ideology, for better or worse, is at play here, and a pre-titles disclaimer (which proclaims “All films are part fiction. No film can faithfully reproduce the complexity of a human life. Each to his own point of view”) seems like an admission of defeat, or a retreat away from any culpability.
Without much in the way of probing character study, or novelistic depth, both films add up to a whole that is quite worryingly middle-of-the-road, as if the point or reason of making the film had been lost along the way. It’s just a ripping yarn, easily positioned for co-production financing and international acceptance.
Mesrine is as heroically ambiguous as the cops that pursue him, and as morally murky as the society he was birthed by. There are hints – suggested atrocities in the Algerian War, the extreme, brutal regimes of the maximum security prisons, and the frank, violent method of Mesrine’s eventual snuffing out – that could point towards a rotten zeitgeist best mirrored by a criminal celebrity. However, this is contained in deep subtext, with the collected Mesrine movies trading on thrills, spills and a superlative performance from its lead actor. That aside, Richet and company play it quite boringly safe.
Two behind the scenes ‘making of’ featurettes are included, made up mostly of b-roll footage from the shoot and promotional interviews with the cast and crew. Nothing too insightful or worth the slog. Cassel is always worth watching, though, especially as he larks about on set, poking camera lenses with pistols and bursting through courtroom doors whistling the theme from The Good, The Bad And The Ugly.
Mesrine: Parts 1 & 2 is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.