A handsomely-mounted two-film biopic that plays fairly well as one four-hour film, this tells the (adult) life story of notorious French gangster Jacques Mesrine. On his return from Algeria in 1959, he embarked on a life of crime – as mob henchman, bank robber, kidnapper and daring jail-breaker – that ended in a hail of police gunfire in the very public Place de Clichy twenty years later. With a supremely committed performance from Vincent Cassel in the lead and a host of great French acting talent in support, it’s undeniably a prestige production and one with which Mesrine himself, always keen to court media attention, would doubtless have been delighted. Which is not necessarily a good thing.
- Director: Jean-François Richet
- Scriptwriter: Abdul Raouf Dafri
- Cinematographer: Robert Gantz
- Art director: Jean-Andre Carriere
- Cast: Vincent Cassel, Gérard Depardieu, Mathieu Amalric, Ludivine Sagnier, Cécile de France, Elena Anaya, Olivier Gourmet, Roy Dupuis, Gérard Lanvin
Proceeding more or less in chronological order, the Killer Instinct flashes back from the events leading to the death of Jacques Mesrine (Cassel), to a claustrophobic scene of chaos in Algeria, whence he returns to his parents’ house in Clichy. He falls in with an old pal, starts house-breaking, and joins the local mob of boss Guido (Depardieu). He deflowers, then marries a Spanish girl (Anaya), has three kids and tries to go straight for a while; but when laid off, he doesn’t need asking twice to return to a life of crime, which by now includes murder. He beats his wife and she leaves him; he meets a high-class prostitute, Jeanne (France), in the bar of a casino, which they proceed to rob. Their activities compel them to leave France for Montreal where Mesrine falls in with a Quebecois separatist, Jean-Paul Mercier (Dupuis).
They rob banks. Mesrine and Jeanne go to work for a billionaire as house-keeper and chauffeur but when abruptly fired, they return to kidnap him. Forced once again to flee, they are apprehended in Arizona and extradited back to jail in Canada, the headlines declaring them “Bonnie and Clyde” and Mesrine voicing support for a free Quebec. He is placed in a maximum security facility where he undergoes harsh sensory torture in naked isolation, before being released to the yard from which he soon ingeniously and audaciously escapes with Mercier, in broad daylight. He promises to return to free his comrades, but the brazen gun battle with the guards goes badly and he is forced to flee, injured; the publicity created by his actions, however, causes the facility to be closed.
At the start of Public Enemy No.1 Mesrine is back in France, in custody for bank-robbing. Thanks to a gun hidden in the courthouse, he escapes from his trial, with the judge as hostage. Commissioner Broussard (Gourmet) is on his trail, however, and besieges his apartment; Mesrine gambles for time and eventually lets them in, welcoming Broussard with champagne. He is outraged not to have made the front page of the papers (it goes to the Chilean coup) and writes a memoir of sorts (Killer Instinct) whilst in jail. In court, he plays to the gallery, claiming to steal from “a bigger thief than myself” and becomes yet more popular. In prison he meets François Besse (Amalric), another multiple escapee, and together they perform a daring break. Disguised as detectives, they brazenly scope out the Deauville police station before robbing the casino, and make a lucky escape in the trunk of a farmer’s car.
Back in Paris, Mesrine meets his final girlfriend, Sylvie (Sagnier) and gives media interviews in which he likens himself to the Baader-Meinhof gang and the Red Brigade, but his new-found ideology leads to a break with Besse. With another accomplice he successfully kidnaps a billionaire, buys jewelry for Sylvie. He takes up with a leftist comrade (Lanbvain) but his political posturing becomes more self-contradictory. Together they kidnap a journalist whom Mesrine felt had “blemished his name”; he strips him, beats him and leaves him for dead, and sends polaroids to the newspapers. Broussard closes in and in the Place de Clichy, less than a mile from where he grew up, he is shot to death in his car by police.
- The Production: This is a fine, glossy pair of prestige pictures, with excellent period design and attractive cinematography. Kicking off with a nifty credits sequence, it’s full of excitement, fast-moving and broad in scope.
- The Cast: Flitting through Mesrine’s life are some of France’s top actors, all on good form, and at the centre is a committed performance from Vincent Cassel, who fully embodies the character, from affable good-humour, unassailable self-confidence and gentleness with children, to sudden burst of rage, murderousness and self-promotion.
- Mesrine: He was such an extraordinary person that it would be quite hard to make a bad film from his life story (though I cannot speak for the previous attempts). He was coy about whether he had told the truth or exaggerated in his memoir, saying that people wanted excitement, but the known facts show that he really lived his life that way. He was praised as a Robin Hood for his daring escapes, he was fantastically brazen in his crimes and he positioned himself with the little man against system. He was proud of his title of Public Enemy No.1 and that he had created a reputation for himself as a gangster with honor, all through the force of his own personality.
- The production: This is a film rather enthralled with its own sense of self-importance. Behind the length and handsome look it is really a very pedestrian bit of film-making; much of the excitement comes from the simple facts of Mesrine’s extraordinary life, with action sequences shot and edited adequately but rarely with any real flare – you know there’s something wrong with the presentation when your heart sinks at yet another shoot-out with the police. And it’s accompanied by a thudding and increasingly irritating and obvious score. There’s also plenty of little annoyances, from numerous very obvious choices to niggling inconsistencies – why for example does Mesrine sometimes fly of the handle at mispronunciation of his name, but allow those who should know better to get away with it? Why did Sagnier not take her out tongue stud?
- The Cast: Not their fault, really – none of them is really given anything to do but Cassel. The others flit through his life never developing a real sense of character. They impressions they leave are superficial – sunglasses, a jacket, a wig; Depardieu’s ho-hum obvious casting and subdued playing; Sagnier’s sexpot routine. Only Gourmet, with a funny Amish chin beard, and Amalric with those googly eyes of his, make you wonder what’s going on inside. The focus is tightly on Mesrine, and even he is not entirely satisfactory: Cassel fully embodies the character, but the real-life Mesrine’s very changability and desire to be popular means that we never really get to know him – he is contradictory rather than complex; probably true to life, but our only perspective is on his own self-awareness and sense of performance in front of others. Little in the way of context is provided, which goes too for the wider mood of the successive times beyond the period trappings of production design.
- Mesrine: He was basically a shit. His affability quickly loses its charm, as he beats and kills his way through the film. Even less charmingly, he was a brazen publicity hound and self-promoter, always in search of, and expecting, popularity. His principles of respect and loyalty lead to his viciously beating his wife; his left-wing ideology is transparently self-serving and contradictory; and he’s a complete sociopath. Not any easy central character: we get very little inkling of his inner life, and we certainly don’t sympathize with him, but neither do we feel the uneasy horror or fascination that would at least be engaging.
The films can be taken separately – a growth story followed by a portrait, with a discrete change in technique between the two – or as one long piece. In either case they present perfectly adequate entertainment, but uninspired direction and construction consistently succumbs to bombast, repetition and obviousness. The films are carried entirely by Mesrine’s extraordinary story, but they leave two sour tastes, the first caused by their sense of self-importance and meretriciousness; and the second by the fact that it feels an awful lot like the glorification of a highly dubious subject.
The first film is in select theaters starting August 27th and the second film opens on September 3rd.