Danielnothing's Blog

Film Review: Mesrine: Killer Instinct

Posted in Uncategorized by danielnothing on January 24, 2010


‘No one kills me until I say so’.

Mention the name Jacques Mesrine to French people of a certain age and you’ll get instant recognition, a nostalgic frisson comparable to a Brit’s reaction to the names Ronnie and Reggie Kray. He was a loose cannon whose exploits as an international man of violence left an indelible impression on the French psyche, as he rose from the ranks of Paris’ petty con artists and burglars to become France’s oft-declared Public Enemy Number 1. Like most career criminals, his life story was begging for the lavish, big-screen treatment, and that it gets in Jean-François Richet’s Mesrine: Killer Instinct (L’instinct de Mort in it’s original French release title), the first part in a duo of crime epics detailing the colourful life (and violent death) of a man largely unremembered by the world outside of France.

Opening with a gripping split-screen title sequence that would do Hitchcock or Argento proud, it takes you several moments to realise that the paunchy, sunken-eyed figure in a red roll-neck sweater, beard and permed wig moving gingerly down Paris back streets is in fact Mesrine himself, as portrayed by France’s premier movie bad boy Vincent Cassell. Moving effortlessly between big-budget action thrillers  like Dobermann to more cerebral (L’Appartement), gritty (La Haine) or controversial (Irriversible) fare, Cassell is the De Niro or Oldman of France, a whip-smart, rake-thin attention magnet: here he seems to have filled out and shrunk, become the last thing you’d notice on a crowded street. The whole title sequence turns out to be a tease anyway, since we quickly realise that it’s a flash-forward . We won’t see how this particular episode resolves until the second movie (although if you do the tiniest bit of homework, you’ll know how this story ends all too well).

Flashing back to Algeria in 1959, we glimpse the same man in  French military uniform in shaky, grainy footage of the torture of two suspected Arab terrorists. He’s lean, young, and quick to demonstrate brutality beyond even his superiors’ control. Back in France, Mesrine is every inch the moustachioed spiv, drinking gambling and whoring his way across Paris, a man to whom nothing is forbidden, everything is up for grabs. Coming under the influence of the shady ‘Guido’ (as embodied by the always welcome bulk of Gerard Depardieu) a nightclub owner, gangster and former member of the notorious O.A.S. (far-right French paramilitary organisation), Mesrine is earmarked as someone with a bright future in the underworld. In short order we witness our anti-hero burgle a palatial suburban mansion, using his smooth appearance and charm to escape with the loot, furiously berate and take leave of his mild-mannered father for ‘having no balls’. graphically murder an Arab pimp who has scarred his favourite whore, go to Spain, fall in love with a cute chica (Ludivine Sagnier), marry, have kids, rapidly mutate from loving husband and father to loathesome wife-beater, get jailed, get released, hook up with a sultry, shades-wearing partner (in both love and crime) Jeanne  (Cecile De France)….

As you can probably tell, the main thing that suffers in this whirlwind cram session of events is pacing. Cassell is endlessly watchable as the alternately charming and obnoxious Mesrine, but the desire to shoehorn in seemingly everything that happened to him (even if only briefly hinted at) relegates everyone else to the status of cameo. Sometimes this ultra-fast forward propulsion is cleverly handled (immediately after boasting about how easy his next bank job will be, we cut to him glumly entering prison), but more often than not it leaves you wanting to know and see and feel more of what he’s going through, moment-by-moment. There’s precious little time spent observing the man in his more reflective or  playful moods: his larger-than-life antics and self-invented persona fill the screen, daring you to judge.

The closest the film comes to exploring Mesrine’s inner life is a protracted sequence of solitary confinement in a Canadian jail, shot in nightmarishly wide angles in harsh light. Here we see him broken down into his consituent parts, literally and figuratively stripped, subjected to physical and psychological torture, humiliated. It’s an utterly gripping, extremely uncomfortable sequence to sit through (reminiscent at points of Steve McQueen’s  Hunger, not to mention the classic Papillon, which starred a very different man called Steve McQueen) and makes you hope that something of  greater substance and integrity will be on the other side, that the movie may tire of all this skilful hagiography and present us with a subtler portrait. Instead it sets up a thrilling prison break, and even more jaw-dropping prison attack, masterfully executed and captivating to witness, but more the slam-bang stuff of Bond movies as opposed to the thoughtful essence of biopic.

The essential problem with Killer Instinct (I can only speak for the first part of this epic duo, since I have not yet seen Public Enemy Number 1, the second part) is this dichotomy between exciting, crowd-pleasing heroics and the odd attempt at psychological realism: between Mesrine, the witty, charming anti-hero, and Mesrine the sadistic thug who enjoys violence and forces the mother of his children to swallow a gun-barrel. Goodfellas managed to overcome similar problems of attraction/repulsion by making it’s anti-hero Henry Hill a lot more anti than hero: we were involved with his story and could even empathise at certain points, but we were never allowed to escape the essential monstrousness of the man and the world he inhabited.. Here, we are often asked to overlook the less palatable aspects of Mesrine the woman-beating sadist and criminal opportunist, and embrace the handsome joker, the celebrity bank-robber whose arrival at a Quebec airport generates the sort of media frenzy that The Beatles were afforded.

Richet is a skilled, craftsmanlike director, Cassell is never less than electrifying and this is a highly involving and hugely enjoyable movie, but there is definitely a nagging sense of something being overlooked or withheld. We are repeatedly given Mesrine the Myth on a platter: Mesrine the Man remains elusive. Perhaps part two will illuminate more of the character with harsher, less forgiving light than is found here. Not a bad film by any means, but a frustrating one. To have nearly four hours to detail a man’s entire criminal career over decades, one would think (hope) that the film makers would indulge the legend  a little less, peek behind the curtain of the public enemy a little more.


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