NEW BLOOD AND PLENTY OF IT: Review of Mesrine: Part I, Killer Instinct

Jacques Mesrine is the French John Dillinger, a larger than life criminal who got a reputation as a Robin Hood without, like Dillinger, ever giving anything to the poor. He’s played in Mesrine, Part I: Killer Instinct, by the exciting French actor Vincent Cassel, son of French movie star Jean-Pierre Cassel. Cassel pers is more known for his appearances in the cinema that grew out of the French new wave, a studied and careful style of movie making influenced by the Hollywood studio system and directors like Hitchcock, Huston and Ford. As Cassel fils said in a Q&A at an interview of a sneak preview of Mesrine at the American Cinemateque, he and others of his generation had to find their own voice because their father’s way of making movies wasn’t doing it for them anymore. This resulted in movies still influenced by America, but now by Scorcese and Coppola (and the wheel comes full turn). In France, the movement has been termed “new blood”, partially, probably, because there is a lot more of that liquid on the screen. This also meant that Cassel fils had to find his own voice as well, and unlike his father who made films like Army of Shadows, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and Murder on the Orient Express. Vincent is known for playing thugs and dangerous characters in movies like Eastern Promises, Irreversible and The Crimson Rivers.

And Mesrine is all Cassel. Apparently it’s his baby, a vanity project that he’s been working on for many years, and he is mesmerizing in the role. Mesrine was one of those people who had charm. He could insult your ethnic background and wear his racism on his sleeve, but he had charm. He could beat up women, but he had charm. He could kill people with the cool, clear collectiveness of a sociopath, but he had charm. He apparently also gave great headlines and knew how to talk to the press. Cassel said his biggest challenge was in charming the audience and making Mesrine interesting in spite of his viciousness. And Cassel succeeds. No matter what the faults of the movie may be, one is fascinated by this character and much of this is due to Cassel’s riveting and, well, charming performance.

Cassel said that he thought that one of the reasons why Mesrine is attractive to an audience is that he was someone who would say “no” to people, to the authorities, something that all of us would love to be able to do, but almost never have the courage to try. I think that’s true, but I also agree with my friend Beriau who saw the movie with me. He thinks that Mesrine is attractive because he was willing to make the romantic gesture, no matter the odds. He breaks out of prison and promises to return to help the others escape, an absolutely ridiculous idea doomed to failure (and the result is tragic), but he made the promise and he does it. He calls his girlfriend in prison and vows to break her out and she tries to convince him not to, that she doesn’t have that much time left to serve. But no, the romantic gesture demands he try. So in turn, she has to make the equally romantic gesture back and save his life by telling his that their relationship is over and she doesn’t want to see him again. He’s a sociopathic Don Quixote and Cyrano de Bergerac combined. He’s the epitome of European existentialism; the result is irrelevant, it’s the attempt, it’s the striving to be your authentic self that is important.

The weakest part of the movie is the screenplay itself, written by Abdel Raouf Dafri and Jean-Francois Richet, who also directed, from a book by Mesrine himself. The first part depends especially on a politically history of France that may be familiar to citizens of that country, but puzzling to those on these shores. It also tries to blame Mesrine’s sociopathology on his experiences in the Algerian war in a scene straight out of something that might have happened at Abu Ghraib; it feels oversimplified, though. One gets the feeling that Mesrine would have turned out to be a vicious, misogynistic, bigoted murder with little respect for human life even if he had been joined the Peace Corp. The story also feels a bit sketchy at times; the plot jumps from place to place and over periods of time without always letting the audience in on what’s going on (exactly who was that guy was who owned the Parisian casino that Mesrine and his girlfriend Jeanne robbed; who the hell knows; after awhile, it becomes who the hell cares). At the same time, it’s so skillfully put together and moves at such an exciting speed, that you end up not caring. At the interview, Cassel mentioned that people claimed that the editing felt very American, but he didn’t see it. I did. There was one scene of a car being blown up whose effect was extended by showing it happening again and again from different angles, and the attempted rescue from the prison is riddled not just with bullets, but myriad camera angles, giving it a very homegrown feeling. Add to that the thumping, hypnotic music score Eloi Painchaud and you got a pretty swell movie.

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