Mesrine: Killer Instinct (2008) Jean-François Richet
Music Box Films DVD, library (1:53)
Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 (2008) Jean-François Richet
Music Box Films DVD, library (2:14)
In Mesrine: Killer Instinct we see the end from the beginning. In an opening that recalls the brief but unmistakable split-screen craze of 70s cinema, we see a man and a woman carefully exiting a Paris building, taking great care to make themselves aware of their surroundings. For several moments, these split-screen shots are photographed simultaneously from different angles, watching the characters’ every move, until an act of brutal violence ushers in what would normally serve as the finale of a crime film. Yet we’re just getting started. We never really understand why this split-screen technique is used until we arrive at the very end of the second film, Mesrine: Public Enemy #1, where we come full circle. In between these scenes lies one of the best crime films I’ve seen in a long time.
Jacques Mesrine was, in fact, a real person: a notorious French gangster operating in France and Quebec in the 1960s and 70s, portrayed here brilliantly by Vincent Cassel. (You might think of Mesrine as the French equivalent of John Dillinger.) We don’t learn much about Mesrine’s youth, but we do see him early on as a French soldier fighting in Algeria where he’s faced with a difficult decision he must make under intense pressure. After his military service is completed, Mesrine comes home and through his friend Paul (Gilles Lellouche), begins working for a local mob boss named Guido (Gérard Depardieu, above).
Mesrine meets, woos, and marries a young woman named Sofia (Elena Anaya, above). They have children and for awhile, it seems Mesrine might go straight, cutting his losses and settling down. But the allure of the criminal life is simply too strong. Too many opportunities present themselves, too many things Mesrine can’t say “no” to, although he has little trouble saying no to his own family, including his parents, whose conventional lifestyle he can no longer abide.
Taken together, the Mesrine films are the fastest four hours you’re likely to spend watching a movie. Viewers might be tempted to dismiss the film(s) as moving too fast with too little time for reflection and character development, and from what I’ve read, many critics hold to this view. I think they’re missing the point. The Mesrine films aren’t simply violent action pictures that move at breakneck speed, sacrificing character and depth. Things rarely slow down in the films because things rarely slow down for Mesrine. He’s restless, agitated, always requiring a woman by his side, good food, and a good plan – to rob a bank when he’s on the streets, to break out of prison when he’s incarcerated. Many of these events may seem untenable, ultra-sensational or downright impossible until you read some of the factual accounts of things Mesrine actually did.
Things move quickly because Jean-François Richet believes his audience doesn’t need an assault of backstory or information beyond the essentials. We know everything we need to know about Mesrine during Killer Instinct’s first hour. Beyond that, Richet doesn’t need to linger on particular details about how Mesrine left one woman for another, how he moves from this hideout to that hideout, chooses disguises, or the consequences of abandoning his family. It’s enough for us to know that he does those things. We may think the film is plagued with gaps in how these events happened, but sometimes Richet’s brief glimpses are all we really need.
Case in point: Mesrine’s teenage daughter comes to visit him in prison. She wants him to be part of her life, but soon realizes that can never be. She knows him and his habits well, perhaps better than he knows himself. During the prison visit, she delivers a telling line, “At least I know where you are.”
Mesrine may not always have his family on his mind, but you can’t say he doesn’t take advantage of opportunities. While fleeing one bank after robbing it, he sees another across the street and spontaneously decides to rob it as well. He also understands the power of the press and how they can turn him into even more of a media sensation, yet the bottom line hasn’t escaped him. To one reporter, Mesrine states, “There are no heroes in crime, only men who’ve chosen to live outside the law.”
Yet Mesrine’s philosophy of robbing those in positions of power rather than those struggling just to get by often clashes with his partners. After a successful jailbreak with François Besse (Mathieu Amalric, above left), the two men argue over why they do what they do. Says Besse, “We’re crooks, not wild-eyed idealists. We don’t try to break the system. You want to tear down the system, but I want to milk it.”
Mesrine sees himself as a revolutionary, someone who does want to wreck the system, yet his actions often stem from something other than revolutionary ideals. Mesrine has no regard for the law or authority figures in general. Perhaps this began during his time as a soldier in Algeria or perhaps it has something to do with the scorn he feels for his father, whom Mesrine feels is less than a man, not having enough backbone to stand up to people (including Mesrine’s mother). The longer you watch Mesrine, the more you think that maybe Mesrine’s prime motivation isn’t revolution but selfishness. He abandons the majority of his most meaningful relationships except for those in the criminal world. We may see ourselves as one thing while our actions say something else about us. This is the aspect of Mesrine that I find most fascinating, an aspect that Richet explores with a light touch in the midst of much mayhem. I don’t think it’s too much to say that Mesrine is, in fact, one long character study and one man’s philosophy of life.
Mesrine seems to draw comparisons to films like Scarface and Goodfellas, but to me the film most resembles the 2010 Olivier Assayas film Carlos, a crime biography of Venezuelan revolutionary Carlos the Jackal. Both films examine the life, myths and contradictions of two notorious criminals with an amazing visual richness. Richet’s films obviously came first, so perhaps Assayas owes something of Carlos to the Mesrine films. It’s been awhile since I watched Carlos, but I think the Mesrine films are just as good. Vincent Cassell delivers an amazing performance as Mesrine and the entire cast is top-notch as well. Anyone who enjoys crime films should watch Richet’s Mesrine films without hesitation. They’ll be the quickest four hours you’re likely to spend watching movies and don’t be surprised if you’re out of breath by the time they’re over.
(Many thanks to my friend Michael Kronenberg for suggesting the Mesrine films.)