Jacques Mesrine was a real piece of work. For the better part of twenty years, the flamboyant French gangster robbed banks, kidnapped billionaires, and dodged the cops all around the world. He escaped from prison so often it seemed like a hobby. Once he escaped from a courtroom by taking a judge hostage. In between crimes, he published a memoir of his exploits. When he was finally shot dead by the French police, in what amounted to a state-sanctioned execution on the streets of Paris, he was already a worldwide cultural antihero.
A real piece of work.
Of course, the truth is that Mesrine was also a cold-blooded killer, an egotist, and an all-around not-nice guy. Toward the end of this life he tried to make the case than he was a revolutionary, but it’s almost certainly more correct to say that he was a nihilist and a stone cold thug.
But criminal legends are rarely nice guys. And, after all, the fascination they hold for the rest of us is a complete and total disregard for the rules we live by. The appeal of the gangster film is twofold—one, seeing someone live outside the law, and two, seeing them suffer for it.
All of which is to say that it’s no surprise that Mesrine’s life would inspire a particularly vigorous cinematic recounting. Jean-François Richet’s Mesrine is a stylish diptych that traces the gangster’s rise to power and notoriety and his eventual, and inevitable, downfall. With a stellar turn by Vincent Cassel, it’s a full-on two-part epic, a French Scarface that spans decades and continents and rockets toward a preordained date with doom.
Mesrine: L'instinct de mort (which means “Instinct for Death,” but goes by the title Killer Instinct in the U.S.) kicks off with Mesrine doing a stint in Algeria in the French Army. At least by the film’s accounting, his experience there taught him that life was cheap and the government is corrupt. He comes home from the army and moves in with his domineering mother and Milquetoast father, and almost immediately plunges into a life of crime. He’s the perfect gangster—bold, vicious, crafty. Caught burglarizing a home by the elderly occupants, he pretends to be a police officer investigating the burglary. He starts moving up the criminal food chain, getting a job with a gangster named Guido (an excellent Gerard Depardieu) that leads to bigger jobs and more violence. At the same time, he marries a sweet Spanish girl named Sophia (Elena Anaya) and has a few children. Torn between two worlds—of Guido’s gangster life and Sophia’s domestic bliss—he tries briefly to go straight but eventually accepts what seems to him to be the fate of his personality. Soon he’s robbing banks with a sexy new accomplice, Jeanne Schneider (Cecile De France) and they become a kind of French version of Bonnie and Clyde. They hop over to Canada, kidnap a billionaire, run from the cops, and wind up arrested in America (in a funny and beautifully shot sequence in Monument Valley).
Hauled back up to Canada, Mesrine is thrown into a prison/hellhole in Quebec. There he’s brutalized and tortured before he busts out with an accomplice. Amazingly, he and his accomplice go back to the prison with a truck full of guns and attempt to liberate the other inmates. Like many of the more extraordinary criminal details of the film, this incident is based on fact. While this revenge-fueled assault on the prison failed, it went a long way toward establishing Mesrine as a criminal’s criminal and an underworld folk hero. The film ends, however, with a reminder of what a shit Mesrine really was. When he and his accomplice are discovered target practicing in the woods, they murder a couple of old park rangers.
Mesrine: L'ennemi public № 1 (U.S. Title: Public Enemy No. 1) picks up with Mesrine back in France. By this point, he’s a legend. Not just that, he’s a legend who likes being a legend. He’s arrested again and makes a dynamic escape from the courthouse. When his exploits are overshadowed by Pinochet’s coup d'état in Chile, he’s enraged. He’s sent into a homicidal fury when, after getting generally good press as a kind of Robin Hood (despite his lack of “giving to the poor”) he’s criticized by one journalist. He arranges to meet the man for a private interview and then murders him.
His reputation grows, but the world starts closing in. Besides his narcissism, his need for a woman seems to be his only emotional constant, so he takes a new lover, the lovely and gentle Sylvia (played by the effervescent Ludivine Sagnier). When he makes millions in another kidnapping, he blows it on Sylvia. She wants him to slow down, but he knows he won’t live long. He doesn’t. They take a drive one day, stop at a red light, and the world turns into a torrent of gunfire.
What to make of a film epic like Mesrine? The French obsession with him is akin to the American obsession with John Dillinger. Beloved, for a time anyway, by much of the public, neither man was the folk hero he pretended to be. Still, their exploits tapped into a commonly felt rage—at economic determinism and political nepotism and all around governmental hypocrisy.
There’s a fascinating undercurrent of Mesrine in the way the gangster keeps trying to align himself with leftist revolutionaries. He doesn’t much trust them because he will not countenance being told what to do, and they do not much trust him because his idea of revolutionary activity is robbing banks and using the money to buy stuff. Mesrine’s attempts to portray himself as a leftist hero fall flat. Gangsterism, the film seems to admit here, is life reduced to the profit motive—capitalism in its purest state. What Mesrine really represents is the system turned in on itself.
At the center of the film is the towering performance of Vincent Cassel. For American audiences who only know him for slimy roles in Black Swan and Ocean’s Twelve, Mesrine’s two parts will provide an uncut double-dose of pure Vincent Casselness. He won’t make you love the gangster—it’s to his credit that he doesn’t try—but he’s riveting. A real piece of work.
Read all posts by Jake Hinkson for Criminal Element.