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.

THE EVIL THAT MEN DO: Reviews of The White Ribbon and A Prophet

Near the end of The White Ribbon, the great Austrian director Michael (Code: Unknown, Cache) Haneke’s most recent film, a schoolteacher tells a group of children, “There’s something you’re not telling me”. As much as I admire Haneke, in the end I wanted to say the same thing to him. The film, I’m afraid, went over my head, and I felt as if there was something that Haneke just wasn’t letting me in on. It takes place just before the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and the beginning of WWI. Over the course of a year, some odd things happen in a small German town. It begins when someone strings a wire across two trees so that it will trip a doctor returning home on his horse; serious injuries occur. Over the course of a year, a woman dies accidentally; the very young son of the local Baron is abducted and beaten; a baby almost dies because a window is left open; someone commits suicide; a retarded little boy is then abducted and tortured; etc., etc. You know there’s something wrong from the first moment when you see the children of the local pastor and they all look like the cold, blond children from Village of the Damned. The origin of the evil is unclear. On one side is the pastor who is severely strict with his children and sexually repressive; on the other is the Doctor, who though not portrayed as an atheist, does not seem to attend church—he sexually abuses his daughter and sexually humiliates his mistress. In spite of what seems like a lot of awful things happening, they happen over such a long course of time and sometimes seem to have no relation to each other, that I found little tension to the story. A narrator suggests that things are festering in the village and have been for some time; I’m glad he told me, because I don’t think I would have known otherwise. The plot ends without an explanation as to who did some of what happened; this would have been fine if that had been the intent of Haneke, to say that the origin of evil is something we don’t understand. But I’m not convinced that that’s what he was trying to say. It seems to come closer to an idea that sexual repression and sexual hypocrisy is what causes evil, but I have a hard time taking seriously the idea that just because someone is forbidden to masturbate, Europe goes to war. It does look great, though. The bleak and striking black and white photography, greatly celebrated, is by Christian Berger.

A Prophet, the thrilling new film from Jacques Audiard (who also gave us The Beat That My Heart Skipped), has been compared by some to the Godfather. I think a more apt comparison is to Scarface since A Prophet is the story of a teenager sent to an adult jail, a man of Muslim and Middle Eastern background, and then climbs the ranks of the Corsican Mob and becomes head honcho. It’s not a particularly happy movie. The lead character of Malik, in a magnificent performance by Tahar Rahim, has little control over his life once he enters this prison for six years. The Corsican mob, headed by Cesar (an equally compelling performance by Niels Arestrup), needs a Middle Eastern prisoner, a witness in a trial, killed, so he forces Malik to do it or die himself. After that, Malik becomes Cesar’s lapdog, but he slowly gets an education and because he can stride both sides of the narrow world due to his Muslim background and his connections to the Corsicans, he learns how to play one against the other until he betrays Cesar and takes over Rome (the scene of Malik’s final triumph over Cesar in the prison yard is a powerful moment). Malik’s journey is an exciting one. The screenplay, by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain form an original screenplay by Abdel Raouf Dafri and Nicolas Peufaillit, has a Shakespearian structure out of something like Richard III or King John and could almost be a how to manual for climbing the French Mafia ladder. One could question whether someone who can’t even read could suddenly have an epiphany and educate himself enough to do what Malik does here, but the story is too fascinating to make one care. The world the authors paint is bleak and the indictment of the French penal system is just as dark as Kafka’s. The prison is not run by the guards and warden, it’s run by the mob, and all programs set up to help reform the prisoners (like giving them a basic education or work leave) are just ways to help criminals become better at what they do (I don’t think we’re in Oz anymore, Dorothy). It’s a very nihilistic view of the world; evil runs everything, and if we are untouched by it, we are merely lucky. At the same time, there’s something a little contradictory here. If evil is so controlling, then it may be unclear how the head of the Corsican mob ended up in jail probably to die there.