Mesrine: L’instinct De Mort (2008)
*CAUTION! For here may be spoilers, if ye don’t know of this mad bastard*
I’ll start this by making clear that up until reading of the film’s release, I had no idea who Jacques Mesrine was. On researching him, I found a fascinating character. A man regarded by many as a hero, but equally as hated by others. Mesrine escaped from jail on multiple occasions, exposed hellish prison brutality, and in the end was gunned down unarmed and without warning by French police – which adds to the myth held in some places that he was a Robin Hood like character, battling against the authorities and bringing down the big boys by robbing banks. Jacques Mesrine was also a cold and brutal killer, who claimed to have killed over forty people during his criminal exploits. The actual number can’t be proved, but many who fell at the hands of Mesrine were innocents. He also kidnapped and tortured a journalist on the basis that he didn’t like what the guy wrote about him, so for those reasons, I’m undecided on where I hold the real Jacques Mesrine.
Jean-François Richet’s Mesrine is an entirely different matter.
From the slick opening onwards, I know should I not like the actual content of the film, the look of it will do for me. I’m trying to remember if in some way the opening is a nod to Bullitt or not, but it’s that long since I’ve seen Bullitt and I’m slightly ashamed to say that every time I have, I’ve been drunk, so it all just fuses with seventies TV shows and high quality car adverts in my head. Never mind, eh? Cut from the final moments of Jacques Mesrine to Vincent Cassel in the midst of the French-Algerian war, executing the first of what I assume will be many quick, clean shootings. Going against the orders of his superior, the scene serves as an opening insight into Mesrine’s disregard for authority.
Skip to a Mesrine fresh from the army and heading into the underworld of early 60’s France. Conjuring up thoughts of “Martin Scorsese does Paris“, here it becomes clear that my view on the real Jacques Mesrine will now be eternally clouded by the smooth Gallic charm of a moustachioed Cassel. Strutting into nightclubs in that particular swirl of Blue and Red lighting that always reminds me of Blue Velvet, Suspiria and Inferno, it’s more than clear how this suave motherfucker won Monica Bellucci. He’s not an obvious looker, Mr Cassel, but there’s something that pulls you in none the less. An intensity behind the eyes that not everyone has. He brings not only swagger, but warmth, and a heavy dose of likeability to Richet’s version of Mesrine. Still though, there’s a thread of underlying violence you can tell is just waiting to be snagged.
Add Gerard Depardieu in the role of crime boss, and within no time there’s a bit of slaughtering going on. I‘ve never seen Depardieu do the hard man act, but he’s bloody good at it, and it’s a shame that his character Guido couldn’t be explored further. He hits off well against Cassel, who stakes his claim as true cinema tough guy material in a particularly memorable scene. Not standing for disrespect of his boss’s staff, Mesrine acts swiftly by punching a glass into the offending man’s face, shooting him in the leg, then smashing a wine bottle into the side of his head in quick succession. Perfect. I’m not revelling in violence here, it’s just that when Vincent Cassel does violence, it looks fucking great. All very tastefully filmed, and in no way gratuitous. Maybe I’m just blinded by the cinematography and lighting. He’s got an eye for a good shot that Richet.
The loving, family man side of Mesrine is explored, until his wife has had enough and is forced to the floor with a gun in her mouth. Cue an opening in his desires for a soul mate, a Bonnie to his Clyde. Enter Jeanne Schneider, and I‘m trying hard not to think of every stereotypical French femme-fatale. Apparently actress Cecile De France was a bag of nerves during filming – if true, it doesn’t show. Escape to Canada follows, where Mesrine meets his next partner in crime, Jean-Paul Mercier, and an attempt at kidnap and extortion goes wrong. Hang on, is that the bloke from classic 90’s TV series La Femme Nikita? Bloody hell, yes it is.
Rough treatment at the hands of the Canadian prison service, and a bit of full force retribution next, with Mesrine escaping, then returning to spread havoc and break out those left behind. It’s the main action heavy sequence of the film, but doesn’t stray into the territory of the unbelievable, sticking pretty closely to what was actually supposed to have happened. Nice touch that real cops were used in place of standard extras, and they can be viewed in the making of documentary having souvenir photos taken with Cassel. Pride of place on the station wall I hope.
Some of the characters and plotlines are cleared out of the way with a little too much haste, particularly Mesrine’s wife Sofia. As mentioned before, Depardieu’s Guido is under-used and there is little explanation for his downfall. Maybe we don’t need an explanation, but it just seemed tied up too quickly. Schneider and Mercier seem pretty one dimensional, while other characters such as that of prostitute Sarah and Mesrine’s old friend Paul only exist to drive the story forward. We don’t even get to see what happens with Mercier, he becomes little more than a single sentence on a black screen. Relegated to a footnote. I suppose none of this should matter, as it is the landscape of Jacques Mesrine that Jean-François Richet sets out to explore.
Overlooking those little niggles, part one of the Mesrine double feature is rounded up well. Richet said he wanted to concentrate on the grey areas of Mesrine, not showing him in either a good or bad light, letting the viewer make up their own mind, and I think he does to an extent. Initially he may appear to be glamorising Mesrine’s lifestyle, but by the end it‘s not so clear. The last quarter shows not only a touching phone call with Schneider displaying his loving side, along with a heroic attempt to rescue fellow inmates, but also shows the cold-blooded killing of two park rangers who happen to recognise him. Richet leaves the final viewpoint on Jacques Mesrine up to personal choice. I’ve yet to see how he portrays him in Part two, and look forward to seeing where it goes, what with the media whoring, disguises, beer belly and all that…
Maybe I’ll have a standpoint on the real Mesrine when I finish, but until then my standpoint on the fictionalised Mesrine is one of stylish class act.
Jacques Mesrine: Le Grand Gangster (a very brief history of Mesrine)