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Mesrine: Killer Instinct / Public Enemy n°1 **

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Inspired by the autobiography of Jacques Mesrine, these films span twenty years in the life of France’s self-styled public enemy number one.

Apparently, Vincent Cassel signed up for the project at an early stage, but as he became unhappy with the direction the script was taking, withdrew. Having replaced director Barbet Schroeder with Jean-François Richet (a man who cites as his inspiration several years spent working in a factory; hot on the tail of his ‘success’ with the Assault on Precinct 13 remake), Cassel returned alongside screenwriter Abdel Raouf Dafri. The latter (clearly quite talented, as writer of the original screenplay for Cannes favourite Un Prophèt) was reticent because of the role the Algerian conflict played in Mesrine’s story. However, these three men went on to develop an interpretation of the material of a depth and scale apparently demanding two films.

MesrinePart One goes a little something like this. Mesrine (Cassel) returns from military service in Algeria and gradually resolves to embark upon a life of violent crime. There is some kind of interaction with his parents, his mate, his new boss Guido (a phoned-in Gérard Depardieu), a prostitute, a Spanish girl he falls for, impregnates, moves in with, and swiftly forgets; there are robberies, of homes, of banks, of clubs, with loud noises and blood; there is punishment, and escape from prison, repeated escape from prison; followed by exile to Canada with a new wife and partner in crime. Within an hour, it has become frustrating. Half an hour later, boredom sets in. Any depth to L’instinct de Mort, any connections between events which suggest a meaning, must be painstakingly reconstructed from the fragmented pieces. What was supposed to be a commentary on the amorality of ambition, the thin line between fame and infamy, becomes a garbled struggle to squeeze in more than the film can accommodate. I couldn’t wait for Part Two.

Mesrine2In L’ennemi public n°1, Mesrine continues to rob, abduct, evade, get caught, bust out, again and again. Half an hour in, and I’ve given up hope. What is supposed to keep it fresh is his developing obsession with celebrity and writing his own myth, amongst other methods of challenging his valueless and cyclical existence. And there is something of a physical metamorphosis in Cassel, who grows noticeably fatter as time goes on. Supposedly, Richet shot the film in reverse, enabling Cassel to shed rather then put on the pounds. But Mesrine doesn’t seem to change at all, or at least has no chance to demonstrate through character interaction whatever metamorphosis he has undergone. In fact, whatever character development does take place is instantly forgettable in the face of all that misogyny, crime and fancy dress (the evolution of Mesrine’s costumes, wigs and beards is the best indicator for the passage of time). Opportunities to play Mesrine against foils are squandered (and we cycle through many partners-in-crime with varying degrees of forgettability), with the possible exception of François Besse (the splendid Mathieu Amalric). And by the time the inevitable, rehearsed and long-overdue conclusion comes around, who cares about the death of Mesrine? It’s a race to get out the theatre.

Dafri has written an adaptation which, despite occasional and brief flourishes of wit and drama, has become terribly uninteresting, unstructured and undramatic. Scene sequences are so poorly executed that all pace, thematic continuity, and editorial elegance are lost. This creates the strange impression of over a dozen different little films rolled into one. There is the Badlands pastiche, the Hunger-esque prison abuse sequence, the heist movie, and so on. Mesrine seems to be written as though it were a contemporary hyperlink drama, but instead of weaving together multiple plot lines and finding meaning in their comparison and intersection, its stitches cover up gaps in just one story, missing out every opportunity to develop characters through dramatic interaction. Those scenes which ought to add some dimension or other to Jacques Mesrine are neutered and effectively redundant (for evidence, see any scene with his parents or lovers). Perhaps it makes more sense through the cultural background knowledge with which some French audiences may approach the films; perhaps this is like watching a Harry Potter movie without having read the book. It not only fails to generate momentum from personal drama, but also to capitalize on the potential intrigue of the Mesrine myth – all we catch of this central theme are a few snatched headlines and news spots, a brief aside on the publication of his book, and a newspaper interview toward the last act. Where are the followers of his cult?

The adaptation makes it difficult to separate judgements on the treatment and on the subject. This crypto-tautology serves to illustrate the difficulty I may have with assessing these films fairly, given how loathsome Mesrine becomes. It is part of their essence, as is made clear when Jacques Mesrine laughs off the notion that the crimes in his autobiography are accurately chronicled. We are witnessing the creation of his myth within that myth. In an attempt to capture this paradox from the beginning, there is a foreword, roughly translated: “No film can faithfully reproduce the complexity of a human life. To each, his point of view.” Nevertheless, L’ennemi public n°1 depicts Mesrine beyond the remit of his own work, and both films try throughout to let the abhorrent side of the man surface from time to time. Responding to his wife’s threat to call the police while he’s on a job, Mesrine beats her and forces a gun into her mouth before their son. He digs a knife around the insides of an Arab man he has gagged and stripped naked beside a shallow grave. He kidnaps a right-wing journalist who has publicly dismantled the Mesrine myth, makes him strip and beats him to a pulp, settling in for a good torture before being forced to finish him off. All of this, and more, on camera. On the occasions when Dafri and Richet seem to depart from Mesrine’s canon, it is no less difficult to pin down whether it is Mesrine or the film which is at fault. Is the consistent denial of any real substance to the female characters, other than physical and instrumental, an expression of Mesrine’s misogyny (for which his insertion of a pistol into his first wife’s mouth is an excellent symbol), or another fault with the film?

Might there be salvation in the minutae of the performances? Cassel is a tremendous actor who can seem to effortlessly evoke danger and charisma. His talents are almost wasted on a character chopped to pieces by poor composition. For all his immersion in a complex mind with a rich backstory, at no point does the audience have a chance to develop any degree of empathy, let alone sympathy, for Mesrine. And what is the point of all those action set-pieces when no one gives a toss about the characters? And listening to the audience in the interval, no one did. But since these films follow Jacques Mesrine for over 240 minutes, without ever diverting to a subplot, this is no tragedy for the formidable Cassel. It just means that his performance is reduced to a positivist account, a studied exhibition of behaviour with little meaning communicated to the audience. Perhaps Cassel’s Mesrine is supposed to be oddly static (a man who cannot grow, whose motivations are in stasis, caught between vicious pride and anxious self-doubt). Those who really suffer are the extensive and incredibly talented cast of supporting actors who are completely wasted: whether it’s Amalric as the one robber with a personality to counterpoint Mesrine (I’d rather watch a film about Besse); Anne Consigny as the attorney who smuggled pistols into prison to facilitate an escape, but whose lines make this seem entirely implausible; Ludivine Sagnier as a crumpet who doesn’t really get many lines between her initial sweaty, naked conquest and her first beating (at which point we are supposed to give credence to her feelings for Mesrine).

Richet is certainly more of a stylist than an aesthete. Might we find redemption in technique? He makes a series of stylistic choices which are flashy but ineffective. Why, every single time he films beside a car, must we adopt an awkward angle parallel to the side doors? Why split the screen to show several similar shots which add no dimensionality, or as an act-opening bookmark? Why make an already repetitive film worse by replicating the same shot and cut sequences over and over again? Why splice so much irrelevant material into a work already overlong? It comes across as heavy-handed to the point of ham-fistedness. And the violence? The representation of violence in the film, according to the EIFF website, manifests a “cold, brutal realism of which Hollywood can only dream”. But this is a realism which comes straight out of Hollywood: shaky fast-cut camera work for the tediously explosive action “set pieces” having evolved from Saving Private Ryan; graphic, ultra-realistic and technically complex on-screen wounds, stabbings, bludgeonings that could only happen on this scale after A History of Violence and Eastern Promises (although Europe does get a look in, with an incensing torture scene near the end of Part Two that calls to mind the fire-extinguisher attack of Irréversible). As I left the cinema, I heard several people comment on this violence. They seemed to think it was too hard, too real. I think they missed the point. I’d rather have an honest depiction of the trauma inherent to violence. But it needs to have a point: it needs to serve some purpose, even if it’s an aesthetic one; and it is outrageous to use it as a tool of emotional manipulation. The torture and murder of the journalist in the last thirty minutes seemed to be just that: a way of building a horrific down beat to lend Mesrine’s death some kind of resonance, even if it must be a vituperative, vengeful satisfaction of justice. Although a necessary part of Mesrine’s life story, I thought its instrumental presentation crass.

I’ve read comparison to Raging Bull, Once Upon A Time In America, The Godfather: Part II, and Scarface. At times, Jacques Mesrine seems to borrow features from Tony Montana, Michael Corleone, even Kit from Badlands. But these are unfair comparisons, because Jacques Mesrine is in no way as cohesive and developed as any of those criminal characters. A more apt comparable might be found in the recent Der Baader Meinhof Komplex, ironically called to mind by one of Mesrine’s quips. It seemed to suffer from a lot of the same faults. Mesrine is boring, obnoxious, broken. But I know there is the kernel of a good film lurking somewhere. Many passages, taken in isolation, could be part of a much better whole (consider Cassel and Amalric’s journey following the casino heist; the Canadian prison break; the courtroom drama). But these films completely fail to reproduce the complexity of a human life. They are, at best, a catalogue of events. I would put to them, as Amaric’s Besse put to Mesrine: “you are a spinning top, and the worst part is that you don’t even know about it.” Cassel is the one thing preventing it from spinning apart.

 

Mesrine: L’instinct de Mort // Mesrine: L’ennemi public n°1, Dir. Jean-François Richet, Writ. Abdel Raouf Dafri, Edit. Bill Pankow & Herve Schneid, Star. Vincent Cassel, Cécile De France, Gérard Depardieu & Ludivine Sagnier, Mathieu Amalric, Anne Consigny, etc, Momentum Pictures, France, 2008
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