by HELEN GEIB
Mesrine is a biopic of notorious French criminal Jacques Mesrine (1936-1979), infamous for bank robberies, kidnappings, murders, and daring prison escapes. Sub-parts Killer Instinct and Public Enemy No. 1, originally released in France a month apart, divide Mesrine’s 20-odd year criminal career roughly in half, beginning with his return from Algeria after his compulsory military service and ending with his death. The two films are unmistakably two halves of a whole that was split down the middle presumably as a concession to the realities of film distribution and exhibition (the total running time of both parts put together is a shade over four hours). Public Enemy No. 1 comes out on DVD today, following last month’s release of Killer Instinct; back to back is the best way to watch them.
Early on, Mesrine’s (Vincent Cassel) underworld mentor (Gerard Depardieu, in a small but plum role) counsels him to make no mistake, people like them always end up the same way. Mesrine brushes off the warning. Even the periodic violent deaths over the years of friends and confederates serve to bolster, rather than shake his blithe self-confidence in his own exceptionalism.
The audience however is denied the luxury of optimistic uncertainty. The film begins with Mesrine’s killing. Riddled with bullets by a police death squad on an undistinguished street in the Paris suburbs, his finish is brutal, bloody, and unglamorous. He never saw it coming. The cinematic death mask is a specter haunting the rest of the film.
The opening, which doubles as the credits, is presented by director and co-writer Jean-Francois Richet in an elaborate split-screen format that is singular to this sequence. The multiple images fighting for our attention put the viewer on edge even before the shocking killing. Beyond its visceral impact, the sequence offers an implicit metaphor for Mesrine’s fragmented, unmoored psyche, a metaphor continued in the film’s episodic structure. More than an elegant solution to the biopic’s inherent challenge of compressing an eventful life into a few hours, the segmented and discontinuous narrative reflects a self-segmented life marked by abrupt partings and sudden deaths.
The story is otherwise told chronologically, aside from a brief return to the end to start the second film, and culminates in a much expanded version of the opening sequence. The longer cut incorporates the elaborate police surveillance operation that paralleled Mesrine’s approach to the point of confrontation, an operation we could previously only infer from the final result. It is the capstone to a life of foreshortened intersections with people and events who exist for Mesrine only at the point of contact.
It is the same for the people he loves- his father, his daughter; although not enough to ever put them before himself- as for his criminal associates and the institutional enemies plotting his downfall. Everything for Mesrine is personal and immediate. Physical torture in a Canadian prison created a deep and abiding hatred of police and prison guard brutality. He is fiercely loyal to his criminal partner of the moment out of a private code of honor. He can’t understand it when the media establishment turns against him after he kidnaps and beats near to death a journalist; after all, the man was nothing but a right-wing shill who had insulted him in print, and he’d always had reporters eating out of his media-savvy hand.
The film deftly illuminates Mesrine’s life and rapidly changing times through narrative and character-based connections and contrasts. To continue from the last example, Mesrine’s partner in the journalist’s kidnapping was a member of one of the era’s violent leftist political groups, who Mesrine will shortly (attempt to) follow into political exile because things have gotten too hot for him in Paris. The political radical objects to the beating because they’re not the fascists, they don’t torture and revel in it; they shoot their victims in the head and move on to the next one. The incident, which comes very close to the end, is a virtual re-play of one near the beginning when Mesrine kidnapped and beat to death an Arab pimp. His original mentor in crime- crime of the old-fashioned organized kind- was the one helping him then. While the older man drank in the spectacle in a spirit of impersonal bigotry, Mesrine was erasing the smear on his honor made by the disfigurement of a hooker he sometimes went around with.
The art direction, costuming and makeup, and cinematography all ably assist Cassel in suggesting the passage- and ravages- of time. The dark, smoke-filled, comfortingly familiar neighborhood bar gives way to a seedy apartment laid bare by unforgiving sunshine. The modish fashions and flattering hair and makeup of the ‘sixties are replaced by less fortunate style choices. Age takes its toll on Mesrine’s once-svelte figure. Throughout, Cassel brilliantly portrays his charismatic, egocentric subject.
Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Public Enemy No. 1 are available on DVD and Blu-ray. A trailer is the only extra, but don’t let that deter you. Buy the discs for the movie.