Sunday, September 26, 2010

Jacques Mesrine Was a One Bad Man But Two Very Good Films

I saw the two part Jacques Mesrine biopic this month. I watched Mesrine: Killer Instinct at the Landmark Embarcadero and Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One at the Landmark Lumiere.

Mesrine: Killer Instinct starring Vincent Cassel; with Gérard Depardieu; directed by Jean-François Richet; French with subtitles; (2008) - Official Website
Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One starring Vincent Cassel; directed by Jean-François Richet; French with subtitles; (2008) - Official Website


I was not familiar with the French gangster Jacques Mesrine (pronounced may-reen). He was active in France and Canada from the mid-1960s to his death in 1979. As I was watching the two films, I wondered how much of the action on screen was rooted in fact. The man had more lives than a cat.

Recounting some of his more daring real-life exploints,

  • Mesrine escaped from a Quebec prison only to return a few week later in an attempt to break out some of the other prisoners

  • Mesrine smuggled a gun into court and kidnapped a judge about to pass sentence on him

  • Mesrine later was captured and wrote his autobiography while in a maximum security prison; he smuggled the manuscript out and it was published

  • Mesrine escaped from that French prison and subsequently gave interviews to Paris Match

  • What made Mesrine the John Dillinger of France? The film doesn't quite explain the why but stylishly depicts the what. Why did Mesine turn to a life of crime? The film lays much of the causation on the Algerian War where a young Mesine served. It also implies that his father was a Nazi collaborator and Mesine's disgust with his father's henpecked life. In real life, before going to Algeria, Mesrine went to a prestigious college and was expelled for aggressive behavior.

    In the films, Mesrine comes into his own as his criminal exploits increase in grandeur. As portrayed by Cassel, Mesrine is fearless, cold-blooded and has a natural panache. Told in a series of vignettes, the film builds Mesrine's mythology one crime at a time. Along the way, Mesrine the man is subsumed by Mesine the legend. Mesrine begins to think himself invincible because no matter how outrageous the crime or how much the odds are stacked against himself, Mesrine survives and is frequently successful.

    The films become more entertaining as Mesrine becomes more flamboyant which apparently mirrored real life. It's as if the real Mesrine lived his life as if he were a character in an action movie. Just enough humanity is attributed to Mesrine to make the films interesting. I thought the scene at a Spanish nightclub where Mesrine meets his future wife was telling. Cassel brings an appealing charisma to Mesrine which I'm sure overstated the real man's persona. Contrasted against the violence committed by Mesrine, the character takes on a complexity which is almost enough. Gérard Depardieu, barely recognizable to me, seems to have a great time as the gangster who serves as Mesrine's mentor.

    The Mesrine films were eminently watchable and quite good. I slightly preferred the first film Mesrine: Killer Instinct which follows Mesrine's life up to and including his time in Quebec.

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