Richet's Ma 6-T va cracker is a legend and his Carpenter re-make Assault on Precinct 13 is a fluent and explosive action update. Clearly an accomplished filmmaker with a flair for violence, he was evidently attracted by the sheer ambition of this project but also the complexity of a gangster who, flourishing at the time of the Red Brigades and Bader-Meinhof, came to think of himself as not just an outlaw but a revolutionary, who wrote two autobiographies, and thus provided material for film-making that would be both layered and epic.
This double biopic, part one in 113 minutes and part two 132 minutes, resembles Soderbergh's Che diptych. It too is neither a feature nor a mini-series, but a vanity project, a labor of love devoted to an ambiguous hero that's hard to market and unsuited to normal theatrical distribution patterns. Both parts are saddled with the biopic burden of a churning chronology and an ever-shifting cast. It's rather conventional and heavy-handed (though mostly successful) in its use of Marco Beltrami's loud surging studio music to augment excitement and heighten suspense. But it's at least as three-dimensional and logically structured as the Soderbergh project, and it has a star in Vincent Cassel who was made to play this role (Richet has said that there would be no Mesrine without him) and despite pell-mell pacing endows the protagonist with complexity. The film may be accused of jamming in too much incident and allowing too little reflection but I was impressed beyond expectations.
Richet's first part shows the formation of a super-outlaw. Mesrine's bank robberies and prison breaks are so spectacular and defiant that he's declared "Public Enemy No. 1" in two countries, Canada and France, officially one of the most famous and dangerous criminals in French history, a figure cops wet themselves over and women want to sleep with. Mesrine, both parts, is full of the sense of how intoxicating it is to live outside the law, and how deeply cinematic gangster life is. Vincent Cassel is charming, charismatic, and loyal to his accomplices as he is ruthless and violent, a complex and magnetic figure who keeps changing from one sequence to another.
The second part shows him playing the role, a media-savvy public icon who would seek front page coverage and give Paris Match an exclusive interview while on the run. Loud, kinetic sequences alternate with quiet ones. This is a great and challenging role for Vincent Cassel, the role of a lifetime, appearing in every scene over a nine-month shoot, 45 pounds put on, early sequences shot at the end with the weight gain. The cast is full of first rate actors, including Depardieu, Ludivine Sagnier, Amalric, Samuel Le Bihan, Olivier Gourmet, Cecile de France, and more. This is not only an impressive and expensive project with high production values and an excellent technical package. It's watchable and well done and at the end of Part One I was eager for Part Two.
Mesrine begins as an agent of De Gaulle's colonial ambitions as a soldier in the Algerian war. "The Marseillaise was playing when they put a gun in my hand--my hand developed a taste for guns." Like American Iraq war vets "Jacky," as his parents called him, came back to his well off upper bourgeois parents (they live in a château) unstable and hungry for violence. War has taught him to torture and murder. It's also left him with a racist hatred of Arabs. His father finds him a job but he prefers to work for a fat, tough crime boss named Guido (an excellent Gerard Depardieu, so submerged in his role he's almost unrecognizable).
Mesrine (pronounced "may-reen," not "mes-reen," as he later insists to cops and journalists) is fighting a war with the rich that may be a war with his own origins. A trip to Spain gets him a beautiful wife, Sofia (Elena Anaya). He's no good as a father, but he remains linked with his firstborn, a daughter, for the rest of his life. After a stint in jail, Mesrine gets a regular job to be there for his family. But he's laid off, and goes back to Guido. Sofia objects, and he beats her up. Sofia disappears, and the film drops that thread.
Escape from the cops leads Jacques to go to Canada with a new girlfriend, Jeanne Schneider (Cécile de France, also submerged and barely recognizable), met like the other women in his life in a bar. This one is not just a bedmate but a willing partner in crime. Denied immigration status in Canada and told to leave the country, Mesrine and Jeanne hide by becoming housekeeper and butler for a wealthy disabled man, but clashes with other staff lead them to lock him up and extort money from his son. This fails and they flee, but are extradited back to Canada from Arizona. Mesrine's subsequent hellish treatment in the Quebec Province SPC (Special Corrections Unit), worthy of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo, is graphically depicted. This prison and escape sequence is anchors the film. With Jean-Paul Mercier (Roy Dupuis), his Quebecois accomplice from the extortion scheme, Mesrine breaks out in broad daylight. They immediately rob two banks and, keeping a promise, return to the prison armed to the teeth and attempt (unsuccessfully, but messily) to liberate the other prisoners. After this, Mesrine is declared "Public Enemy No. 1" in Canada. He has arrived. The storytelling in this first half is breathless but compelling. It is given particular coherence and focus by the vivid Canadian sequences and the prison escape.
L'Instinct de mort debuted in Paris theaters October 22, 2008. It is part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center, March 2009.
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