By Julien Allen
Mesrine: Killer Instinct & Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1
Dir. Jean-François Richet, France/Canada, Music Box Films
Rumor has it that the film rights to the life story of Jacques Mesrine, France’s most notorious and popular tabloid criminal, were first offered to Jean-Luc Godard, shortly after the subject’s violent death in 1979. Godard supposedly didn’t want to make a film about Mesrine, but rather one about an actor who wanted to play Mesrine. In a typically Godardian flight of fancy he had envisaged Jean-Paul Belmondo sitting in a chair reading Mesrine’s autobiography out loud to the camera and . . . well, not much else. Belmondo, unsurprisingly, told him to forget it.
After 243 minutes of film, spread over two parts (Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1), the audience for Jean-François Richet’s much heralded and decorated 2008 movie (three Césars, including Best Actor and Director) could be forgiven for wondering wistfully how Godard’s version might have turned out. After an appearance at the San Francisco International Festival in April 2009, it struggles onto screens in New York and Los Angeles after a delay of two years, but this epic production, albeit competently directed and possessing a sense of grandeur, feels like a low point in contemporary French cinema, a Vichy-style surrender to the aesthetics and methodologies of Hollywood (brought to you by the guy who remade Assault on Precinct 13).
Yet it all starts so promisingly. The opening split-screen sequence, presenting the moments before Mesrine’s death, is intriguing in the way it disorients the viewer. Rather than the traditional approach (different camera angles of events in the same time frame played simultaneously) we soon realize that we are watching different improvised takes of the same shot, presented more or less simultaneously, with only marginal alterations to the positioning of the camera. The effect is distracting (because at first the lack of synching looks like a monumental error) and then unsettling, as it introduces an early suggestion of factual inconsistency and makes what appears to be a coded admission of unreliability. This is entirely apposite, as the screenplay is based on the various bestselling memoirs of Jacques Mesrine himself, a man whose recollection of the events of his own life was as distorted by a need to please his readership as it was by his own colossal ego. The question of what to believe (who is less trustworthy, the filmmaker or Mesrine himself?) remains one of the few points of interest in this bitterly disappointing film.
Otherwise, the Curse of the Biopic is well in evidence here. Surely now the most thoroughly discredited genre, the biopic will, unless done very well, nearly always sink into an episodic distillation of events and facts, presented in lieu of character development, with editors working overtime to cram someone’s colorful life into two hours (or in this case, four) without omitting anything that might be perceived as important. No depth, no time to breathe or consider, contextualise or recollect. Usually, as here, it amounts to a technical demonstration of slash-and-burn editing that contrives to produce a long film, which feels even longer.
There are ways around this problem: in his screenplays for The Queen and Frost/Nixon, Peter Morgan manages to bypass this inherent defect of the genre by selecting only one crucial episode in a character’s life and developing our understanding by presenting their reactions to it. Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly hit upon a unique first person storytelling conceit that grabbed the audience from the outset. Scorsese made Raging Bull (which feels like neither a biopic nor a sports film, but represents arguably the pinnacle of both genres) look and feel like pure fiction, by being unafraid to give La Motta Scorsese’s own voice, by being selective in the extreme about what to shoot, and dismissive of any perceived need to recreate the facts precisely as they happened.
But Mesrine plays it straight down the middle. We get the young Jacques’s spell as a soldier in Algeria, his debut as a petty thief, two kidnappings, four relationships, three jailbreaks, around twenty different wigs and facial hairstyles, and finally his pointless flirtation with an anarchist group. Richet even finds time at the end for an extended repeat of the opening split-screen sequence to tie both parts together (as in the dinner table scene at the end of The Godfather Part II), this time colored by an explicit presentation of the long-held theory of a French state assassination. The opening and closing sequences of the story, presented on their own, might have made a compelling short film. The remaining three and a half hours are certainly watchable, but much harder to digest.
Throughout this meandering tale, no opportunity for cliché is spurned, from the boilerplate—freeze frame on Mesrine’s face with a shutter noise cutting to a front page newspaper splash; Mesrine sitting, scowling, on the end of his bed while a half-naked prostitute wraps herself round him; a violent casino robbery juxtaposed with Mesrine kissing his little daughter—to the truly infantile: a Pretty Woman–style spending spree; Mesrine driving about through Paris’s Place de la Concorde singing along to Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien.” Indeed, this poverty of ideas extends to the soundtrack: classical music fills the stately houses of both of Mesrine’s millionaire kidnap victims; Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” scores a ten-vehicle Arizona police chase right out of Thelma and Louise; and worst of all, the Clash’s “London Calling” plays over a shot of a London bus and a subtitle: “London.”
Likewise, the cinematography isn’t sheltered from such tedious box-ticking. Let’s hear it for circular dolly shots travelling around shotgun-wielding hoods (hasn’t Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz already deconstructed this Bad Boys 2 signature technique?), a drive-by shooting filmed like The Cotton Club and thus resembling almost every other drive-by shooting you’ve seen on-screen, and a helicopter shot of an enormous manhunt across the fields of France, just to show that no expense has been spared. One wonders if we’re supposed to find these things more engrossing the thousandth time we’ve seen them because on this occasion, they actually—at least in one form or another —happened? Or because the film is in French, so it must all be more meaningful than when Michael Bay does it?
Characters are not even properly introduced, much less developed. They tend to simply appear by Mesrine’s side from time to time until it becomes clear that they’re actually quite important. Given the budget available, French stars such as Cécile de France, Ludivine Sagnier (just two of the succession of preposterously attractive women who fall immediately and inexplicably under the spell of this self-serving, violent criminal), and Mathieu Amalric are all present and accounted for, playing roles crucial to the original story but butchered by anxious editing, lest they get in the way of the next action sequence. Amalric in particular had more depth written into his James Bond villain in Quantum of Solace than in the character of François Besse (in reality one of Mesrine’s most influential collaborators, but doing little more here than look perpetually angry or bored). The sight of Gérard Depardieu—a genuine colossus of French cinema, an actor of such subtlety and emotive power in his 1970s pomp (Blier’s Les Valseuses, Truffaut’s The Last Metro)—reduced to a grotesque caricature of a fat racist mob boss, with only the occasional raised eyebrow or nod of the head hinting at the greatness of his past, is particularly sobering. Like De Niro, who shared the screen with him in Bertolucci’s 1900, Depardieu’s acting has not aged well.
But the film does, despite all this crassness, manage to hold the viewer’s attention, principally through a combination of Vincent Cassel’s energy in the title role and the bewildering true events of Mesrine’s life. In particular, some of the methods Mesrine used (facts undisputed) to successfully escape custody beggar belief. So, considering the film’s fascinating subject, the noticeably high budget, and the perfectly sound direction, shouldn’t we simply accept it in line with its intentions? Truly, if the primary intention was to create a product distinguishable from a Hollywood blockbuster only in the language spoken by the cast, then we should concede that the film is a success.
Yet, a film with an ambition worthy of its subject would, at the very least, have taken the time to share with its audience its own reading of its central character. As befits the biopic of a tabloid hero—known to the public, but of whom the public actually knows nothing—we are left none the wiser by the end as to what motivates the man or why we should invest ourselves in his story. His bogus political affiliations and the occasional banal pronouncement (“the man who lives by violence is unlikely to die in his bed”) show Mesrine as something of an empty shell, preoccupied only by self-interest and the public’s adulation. Doubts will linger as to whether there wasn’t more to him than this. A generous reading is that in its sheer emptiness, Jacques Mesrine got the film-epitaph he deserved.
Cassel himself is left to carry some of the burden left by the lack of application by the director and screenwriter (reminding one of Roger Vadim’s approach to a scene that wasn’t working, which was to film more close-ups of Brigitte Bardot). This overreliance on the central actor to fill in, by his vitality alone, the gaps left in the script doesn’t provide the film with more purpose or meaning, any more than it helps Jacques Mesrine—at one point left to rot in his solitary Canadian jail cell—when he shouts louder and louder to attract attention: no one is listening. Furthermore, there is a real cinematic dishonesty at work in the deliberate confusion between Cassel the professional actor (a craftsman adept at transforming his appearance and accent) and Mesrine the professional criminal (whose success at duping the authorities owed far more to chutzpah and luck than thespian skill): we are invited to be impressed by Mesrine, but only Cassel’s skill is truly in evidence.
The critical and box-office success of Mesrine in France was perhaps to be expected but its consequent struggle for international distribution is heartening, as the film presents a commonplace and unimaginative picture of French cinema to the outside world. Béatrice Toulon of the French film magazine Studio remarked with glee upon the film’s opening that, “We now know that it isn’t only Hollywood that can make films like this.” Quite. But if you copy Hollywood so closely as to create a “product” that is barely distinguishable, then you’re just admitting defeat.
It’s widely known that François Truffaut was originally approached in 1965 to direct a biopic of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, but ultimately declined because his command of English was insufficient. Arthur Penn’s resultant masterpiece, Bonnie and Clyde, in its Romanesque eccentricity and forthright tackling of violence and sex, is rightly seen as an untouchable classic in France, emblematic of the New Wave’s ethos. Mesrine is the opposite—it borrows and steals from the familiar and it conforms to a formula that merely reassures the audience rather than challenges it. Most unforgivably of all, it’s a film that has none of the unpredictability, invention, or audacity of its subject. Like all the worst biopics in recent memory (Chaplin, Bugsy, Ali, Ray), it just doesn’t live up to its name.