Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Mesrine: L'instinct de mort and L'ennemi public n°1   Jean-François Richet, 2008, France

This review covers both parts of Mesrine for convenience (yours and mine) and because they tell a single story, albeit one broken in a way that will be considered later.

This a thrilling, absorbing and at times dazzling work, mixing 60s and 70s history – that recent (for many of us) yet often still hidden period – with classic genre storytelling and grounded by a superb performance by Vincent Cassel as the titular character.

Driving the entire piece and in virtually every scene, Cassel captures the snarling, arrogant, charming insouciance of a man apparently as equally capable of schmoozing you as smacking you. In truth Cassel has little opportunity to show much beyond these two extremes, especially in the dynamic first part where his rapid, Tony Montana-like rise from disillusioned soldier of war to vicious soldier of the street is told with economy and style by director Richet, yet he is always a compelling presence.

Cassel is aided immensely by the snappy script by Richet and Abdel Raouf Dafri. Conveniently based on Mesrine’s own memoir, it allows for witty put downs for every occasion whilst always building the man-myth necessary for self-delusion and success on the wrong side of the law. Indeed, much of the wisecracking and the knowing manipulation of media adulation shown in part two echoes that of Kit Carruthers in Badlands, and the precise boundary of truth and fiction is as elastic in this epic journey through the streets of Europe as it is in Terrence Malick’s elegiac, post-modern, desert-set fable. It’s as nihilistic, too, on the part of each film’s protagonist, both Kit and Jacques sharing as clear a distaste for conventional life endings which don’t involve death and glory as they do for the feelings of those who cross their paths. The only exceptions are their belles, here played brilliantly by Cecile De France and, especially, Ludivine Sagnier in parts one and two respectively.

Part two does allow the rather kinetic philosophy of Mesrine outlined at the start to be dissected, by bouncing idea(l)s off of revolutionary partners and similarly criminal millionaires. The conclusion which emerges – that for him, ‘the juice’ is the thing – is not revelatory but does satisfy. Perhaps more of the police effort to catch this multiple murderer, robber, kidnapper and escapee might have added balance, but given the primary source this was always unlikely to emerge.

Cinematically Richet scores highly. A densely-textured period background is formed by excellent cinematography with period-accurate split screen, and good art, costume and make-up design. It’s aided by neatly-included references to contemporary urban political violence by the Baader-Meinhof gang and the Red Brigades, layered into the film by radio and television broadcasts.

But it’s the stunningly realised action set pieces that truly impress. Recalling the best of work by Yates, Frankenheimer and Friedkin executed during the period in question, the many shoot-outs are fast, scary and brutal, with a minimal body count that reflects reality rather than the fanboy fantasy that seems to inform much of today’s lesser action films. Indeed, the climactic prison assault from part one is a sequence worthy of Michael Mann in its bravura intensity and one wonders why he wasn’t attracted to this extraordinary story. Comparisons with Public Enemies are inevitable and sadly unflattering for the Chicago-born director, all the more so given how Richet sustains his effort across four hours of narrative.

Of course in such a wide-ranging field of regard some motes appear. One or two sub-plots could have been closed off more visibly, the gap between parts is a little clunky, signposting a change of pace for the second that sometimes tells, and the decision to open the latter with a scene which removes all doubt as to Mesrine’s end is surprising, but these are quibbles.

Mesrine is a superb achievement. Stylish, gripping and fascinating, it illuminates a subject which to many in the UK and US will be unknown, and does so brilliantly.

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Vincent Cassel in Mesrine

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