Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Movie Review: Mesrine: Killer Instinct/Public Enemy No. 1

Mesrine: Killer Instinct/Public Enemy No. 1 *** ½
Directed by:
Jean-François Richet.
Written By: Abdel Raouf Dafri and Jean-François Richet based on the book by Jacques Mesrine.
Starring: Vincent Cassel (Jacques Mesrine), Cécile De France (Jeanne Schneider), Gérard Depardieu (Guido), Gilles Lellouche (Paul), Roy Dupuis (Jean-Paul Mercier), Ludivine Sagnier (Sylvie Jeanjacquot), Mathieu Amalric (François Besse), Samuel Le Bihan (Michel Ardouin), Gérard Lanvin (Charly Bauer), Olivier Gourmet (Le commissaire Broussard), Elena Anaya (Sofia).

Jacques Mesrine thinks he is a hero, a revolutionary who is going to bring down the system that he feels has screwed him over time and again. He is against the conditions in prison, because he has been in them, and didn’t like the way he was treated. He wants to blow them up and let his friends go. He thinks he will bring down the system by hitting it where it hurts – the wallet – by robbing banks. It isn’t until very late in Jean-Francois Richet’s two part, four plus hour epic about Mesrine that it is explained to him that his plan will never work. Sure, he robs the banks, but what does he do with the money? Spends it on fast cars and jewelry for his wife. He is actually feeding the system he thinks he is destroying. But Mesrine goes to his grave thinking himself a folk hero – and as the movie makes clear, for a surprisingly long period of time, he has many people convinced that he is exactly that.

Played by Vincent Cassell in one of the great performances of the year, Mesrine is cold and calculating, ruthless and selfish, charming and charismatic. His greatest talent may in fact be self delusion – how can a man who spends his entire adult life robbing and killing people, who abandons his children while proclaiming he loves them, who spends all his ill gotten gains on himself, possibly think that he is some sort of Robin Hood? Because that’s how he wants to see himself, and so that is what he becomes in his own mind.

Mesrine didn’t have to become what he was. He had a good education, came from a good family, was intelligent and even held down some good jobs in his early adulthood. He didn’t turn to crime out of poverty or need, but because it was easier. Perhaps his experience as a French soldier in Algeria – where he was surrounded by violence on a daily basis, and even forced to commit violence himself, made something inside of him break. But then again, there are millions of soldiers who come back from war and don’t turn to crime. Perhaps the greatest strength of this epic movie is that it doesn’t attempt to explain Mesrine, or give pat explanations as to why he does what he does. It defines him by his actions and his words.

Told in two parts, which end up totaling just over four hours of running time, Mesrine is often a fairly episodic movie. It looks briefly – in one scene – at his time in Algeria, then thrusts us headlong into his life of crime. He teams up with Guido (Gerard Depardieu), a French gangster who admires Mesrine’s ruthlessness, and his ability to talk his way out of any situation. When Guido gets killed, and Mesrine finds himself on the wrong side of the gang war, he flees France for Quebec. It isn’t long before he has teamed up with Jean-Paul Mercier (played by the great Canadian actor Roy Dupuis) of the FLQ. They end up in a Quebec jail together, and it’s here where Mesrine will make his first of many daring prison escapes. He will later even try to break back into the same prison to get his other friends out. Despite all his talk of a “Free Quebec”, he doesn’t actually do anything to accomplish that, thus establishing the pattern of his criminal career – a lot of lofty talk about breaking the system, back up with a whole lot of killing and robbing for no discernible purpose. I suppose you could say that Mesrine’s expose on conditions inside the prison in Quebec for FLQ prisoners did result in treatment getting better, but that would have undoubtedly have happened anyway.

The two movies are remarkably similar. What changes is not Mesrine himself, but the people around him. In the first film – Killer Instinct – it is Dupuis as his right hand man, and Cecile De France, as the woman who gets drawn into his world. In the second half – Public Enemy No. 1-, it is Mathieu Almaric as his jittery sidekick, who doesn’t share Mesrine’s delusions (“We’re thieves. You want to topple the system, and I want it to stand so I can milk it”) and Ludivine Sagnier as his wife. Both women know who Mesrine is when they get involved with him – both know that it could easily end in jail or death, but they go to him anyway. Why? He’s charming, he’s handsome, he always has money to throw around, and he is the classic “bad boy”.

The movie is anchored by Cassel’s brilliant performance as Mesrine. Cassell is that rare actor who is never the same twice in a movie. He has played villains before, but often there is a degree of sympathy to them – as in his great performance as the pathetic son of a mob boss in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises. Here, he presents Mesrine as a man without feeling or remorse, a man who kills without thinking about it. He buys into his own propaganda about himself as some kind of folk hero to such a degree that when a reporter dares to criticize him in the paper, he kidnaps and tortures him, before leaving him for dead. When the rest of the press discovers this, he is amazed that they have turned on him. He is an incredibly selfish man – a man who abandons his children, and in one of the most touching scenes in the movie, when his daughter comes to visit him in jail she tells him that she prefers him in jail – at least this way she knows where he is. But that doesn’t stop Mesrine, who soon is breaking out yet again. For all his railing against the restrictions of the Maximum Security Areas in French prisons, he never seems to realize that one of the reasons they have such restrictions is to prevent prison breaks – like the ones he is always pulling. Perhaps Mesrine had to delude himself into thinking he was a hero – how else could he live with himself?

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