By Russel D McLean
Regular readers of DSD will know that I have a weakness for French crime films*, so it should come as little surprise that – having missed it during its all too brief appearance in Dundonian cinemas (in fact, did it appear at all?), I was down to me local video emporium to get grab a hot-on-the-shelf copy of Mesrine, France’s biggest movie(s) of last year. And yes, you’re right, I said movie(s) because his story is so big they had to split it into two hour chunks subtitled, Killer Instinct and Public Enemy Number One***. This was not the first time they had attempted to make a film of the man’s life, but I think it’s the version that has so far made the most impact.
Jacques Mesrine (pronounce it Meh-Reen; apparently even the French don’t always get it right) is a real-life French gangster whose career ran from the early sixties through to his death in 1979. His crime crossed borders and he served maximum security jail time not only in France but also in Canada. But even maximum security jail wasn’t enough to hold Mesrine, and he staged a series of spectacular escapes, going back at least once to try and rescue some of his fellow inmates.
I went into the first movie knowing little about Mesrine beyond his reputation as a criminal and found myself quickly dragged into the mind of a man whose very nature was that of the sociopath. What is fascinating about Mesrine, as portrayed here, is the way he constantly tries to justify himself. For every act of brutality is an odd act of kindness that almost makes you warm to him – Mesrine is played as charismatic and yet never once do you edge over into sympathy with him. For all his talk of being akin to Robin Hood, we know the dangerous man who stares out contemptuously from behind the charming façade.
Does any of this have to do with his experiences in Algiers prior to his return home and his involvement with organised crime? The movie implies this once or twice, flirting with the guilt in modern French film-making over what happened during the war with Algeria, but does not offer quick and easy answers. It lays out events in a matter of fact manner with little editorialising, allowing the viewer to do much of the work.
But don’t think that this is a slow burn movie experience. When Mesrine moves into action set-pieces – the hold ups that start the second part, or the incredible return after his first prison break in part one – the film-makers show their power with some incredible bursts of adrenaline. Even on the small screen, I was wincing and tensing up with each bullet wound, with every smash of metal, with every drop of blood. The direction is assured, here, and when you combine that assuredness with the chameleon-like nature of its star, you have something very special indeed.
Mesrine is an incredible movie. Hands down one of the best crime movies I’ve seen in a long time, helped by a central performance that is chilling, charismatic and ultimately doomed. Mesrine’s attempts to reconcile his true nature with the man he wishes he could be result in a strange empathy between character and viewer. When Mesrine publishes a “fictional” novel of his life and crimes, you can see the thin line he has to walk to maintain his own sanity and self image and despite everything, you feel you can perhaps understand something of what drives him. But never once do you feel sympathy. You come to know him too well for that.
Mesrine took the French box office by storm, and its easy to see why. This is powerful, confident and compelling film-making at its finest.
*they may also know that Dave White has an objection to subtitles**
**and unnecessary footnotes
*** Or, if you want to be exact about it, L'instinct de mort and L'ennemi public No. 1