Mesrine: Instinct to Kill, and Public Enemy Number One

by MBKuhl

Two films appeared last year in France and this year in the United States about the life of Jacques  Mesrine.  The films are two parts of a single story, the rise and fall of France’s most well known gangster, a man who began his adult life by choosing to be a criminal but grew to regard himself rather as someone chosen.  Beyond this we might begin to describe him with a list of, let’s say, achievements: French veteran of the Algerian war; bank robber; thief; author; libertine; part time revolutionary; orator; murderer; prison escapist.  Still today all of these achievements are hotly contested, save one.  Throughout his career Mesrine displayed an unrivaled ability to break out of jail.  He broke out of high and low security prisons.  He broke out of Paris’ “La Sante” prison, stayed in Paris for a little while, and immediately went back to heists, which is basically the equivalent of breaking out of Alcatraz, swimming to shore and then opening up a bar in North Beach.  He broke out of a previously impenetrable prison in Quebec, only to drive right back armed to the teeth and attempt to break back in to break out the guys who had helped him break out.  He even broke out of a full courtroom, while on trial, but not until the (overflowing) court could hear a litany of his, let’s say, accolades.

Achievements, accolades and acclaim are the essence of a man openly obsessed with his resume.  Mesrine writes an autobiography (in which he admits to committing murder, while in prison awaiting trial), sets up a profile interview with a popular French paper and, in perhaps his most revealing scene in the film,  lambastes a police interrogator for mispronouncing his name- the “s” is silent.  Vincent Cassel, who is best known in the States for his role as Danny Ocean’s blithely European anti-hero in the film’s latest two installments and as a sneering, hapless, impotent Russian gangster opposite Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises.  In short, he has not been flattered by the English speaking world, which is a pity.  On paper Mesrine is his most American leading role, and by the violent tenor of his voice and the overproduction of his expressions he acts as though he is aware of it.  This is a bit sad, since he has shown riveting subtlety in the heated, enigmatic Sur Mes Levres where he plays an ex convict reentering society, alongside a woman whose deafness renders her quite lost in it.  They both discover virtues in their deficiencies, although not in any way they could celebrate publicly, which covers them in a weighty blanket of silence; real crime is quiet, mysterious and antisocial.

Mesrine, on the other hand, fills the world with noise.  He shouts, screams, shoots and shakes.  When words don’t suffice he speaks with his hands, and with his gun, often all at the same time.  French gangsters, it appears, talk a lot.  And I mean a lot; Mesrine speaks Spanish (to pick up women, successfully) and English (to American police, less successfully) and even picks up some Quebecois slang in Montreal (mid bank robbery, at that).  While arguing with his wife (consequence of an adventure into Spain) he spurts out sentences in French, then in Spanish, then in French (as she responds in Spanish, French and then Spanish) ending in a violent eruption (in French) as he forces his pistol into her mouth and holds it there, long after he’s finished speaking.  He talks so much that by the middle of the second part you haven’t really any idea what he cares about, or even what he stands for.  It’s no surprise then that he looks most confident when breaking out of jail; nothing can be lost in translation.

Unsurprisingly, these scenes (the break-out scenes) are done with the greatest diligence; they provide the body of the plot (his deepest friendships are made, begun or solidified in the planning and execution of his break outs) and grant the audience some momentary catharsis.  And of course, they shift the focus away from whatever he had done to get put in there in the first place.  Such shifting is sadly underused in the film.  The whole project attempts to do justice to the man’s complexity, mystery and charm by overwhelming the screen with his presence.  What is left is an actor and director who, like their subject, don’t know exactly what to do with their bounty of talent.