Monday, August 03, 2009
Public Enemy Number One
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.
Part 2 is more episodic than Part 1, but it has several unifying elements: the relationships with a notable accomplice, the quiet, secretive, but equally bold Francois Besse (Matthieu Amalric); with his last and perhaps most romantic girlfriend, Sylvie Jeanjacquot (Ludivine Sagier); and, after a special "anti-Mesrine cell" has been created just to track him down, with the police manhunt that ends his life. Their code name for him is simply "le grand," the Big One. Above all the film now has an overriding focus on Mesrine's growing public identity, which he consciously shapes. This grows out of the energetic theatricality of Vincent Cassel's performance. There are various scenes of Mesrine "performing" in a police station (where Part Two begins); for journalists of high-circulation weeklies; in court; robbing banks; and for the world at large. If there was once a discernible difference between his public and private life, it has disappeared now that he's assumed arch-gangster status. Cassel literally takes on volume, having put on 45 pounds for this part of the role. His character is solid, confident, and aware of his public image at all times, and with his inflated self-importance, he redefines himself as some kind of savior of the common man from the tyranny of the banks and the bourgeoisie. Various more sophisticated thinkers try to explain to him that the banks aren't the problem, and that robbing them doesn't alter the system and perhaps reinforces its importance.
As Part 2 begins, the now notorious gangster has made his way back to France. Spectacularly, Mesrine and another accomplice escape by holding up a Compiègne courtroom where he's about to be put on trial, taking the judge hostage on the way out. This segment is told in flashback: the gangster is telling his story to the cops after getting caught. He is subsequently furious to learn that the dictator Pinochet has seized page one of the newspapers by being apprehended, and pushed him out. He immediately demands a typewriter and begins to write his first autobiography, L'Instinct de mort (Death Instinct) to gain more attention.
But we also see Mesrine concealing his now more prominent public identity by assuming a series of disguises. He dresses up as a doctor to visit his dying father in a hospital and say goodbye. ("Why are you here?" his dad asks. "Well," answers Jacky, "all the banks were closed. . .") He not only gives Paris Match an important interview, but (in a sequence of excessive violence) tracks down, tortures and murders right-wing journalist Jacques Dallier (Alain Fromager), who enraged Mesrine by having written a piece for the journal Minute calling him a "dishonorable crook" and claiming he has "betrayed" his associates. And we see Mesrine operating through the medium of his attorney (Anne Consigny, of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and A Christmas Tale), who risks her career by helping him get pistols for yet another of his escapes--one that includes fording a river and passing a police roadblock in a farmer's Peugeot.
This time, he escapes with the reserved, suspicious François Besse (Matthieu Amalric), who, like him, has already escaped from prisons three times before and is treated as a celebrity by prison guards. Besse is a sharp contrast to the flamboyant Mesrine and thinks him foolish and mad, though like everyone else, he respects his courage and audacity. The two men rob the Deauville gambling casino's coffers, posing as inspectors to get in. But before that at Mesrine's instigation they pose as Paris cops checking on the local police headquarter's duty roster, to find out when the station is least well-manned. Besse is uneasy about such bold maneuvers, but even more, questions Mesrine's talking to 'Paris-Match' and claiming he's a revolutionary. But it's the late Seventies, the time of the Aldo Moro kidnapping in Rome.
After hearing about the Red Brigades and the Badder Meinhof, Mesrine tells Besse he wants to attack maximum security prisons, in the same way that he went back and attacked the Guantanamo-like Special Corrections Unit in Quebec. The film tells us the SCU's malpractices were ended as a result of Mesrine's exposure of them after his escape. Meanwhile, he persuades Besse to help him kidnap Henri Lelièvre (Georges Wilson), a millionaire Paris slumlord, for ransom, telling the slumlord he represents the PLO. This is another exploit that doesn't go as planned, but leads to a bold escape.
For a while Mesrine connects with Charles Bauer (Gérard Lanvin), an out-and-out radical, and it's with him that he traps and snuffs the right-wing journalist. Bauer in particular debunks Mesrine's claims of being a revolutionary.
The two-film diptych is bookended with the final police shootout in Paris traffic at the Place de Clignancourt that kills Mesrine with Sylvie Jeanjacquot and her little dog at his side, after he has used the slumlord's money to buy her a lot of diamond jewelry and himself a luxury model brown BMW. This is a convention of the genre--the bookending with a final showdown--but the way it's expanded in the finale of Part Two shows both films' fine sense of detail. Olivier Gourmet, among so many others, excels as Commissioner Broussard, head of the anti-Mesrine unit whose operatives are so terrified when the short, now overweight Mesrine walks by where they're hiding.
'L'ennemi public nº 1' had a November 19, 2008 theatrical release in France. It is part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center, March 2009.
Chris Knipp from Berkeley, California