The infamous French Gangster Jacques Mesrine’s life is chronicled in a two-part film that attempts to show the man behind the media sensation that he became as French Public Enemy No. 1. Part One, aptly titled Killer Instinct, begins with Mesrine’s return from Algeria in 1959 to France. It chronicles his rise to a life of crime that included bank robbing, murderer for the mob, kidnapper, and a most entertaining master jail break artist. Over a span of 20 years he would become both the most wanted criminal in France and a celebrity, as shown in part two Public Enemy #1. Leading to a fitting end in a hail of gunfire at the public Place de Clichy in 1979.
The two parts of the film are dependent on each other but at the same time easily separated. Given the length of the film, if we include both parts, at just over 4 hours, it is an undertaking for the viewer as much feels repetitive. The length is not due to the inclusion of moments in Mesrine’s life that could have been eliminated but that his life followed the same strict pattern during these twenty years. Meet a woman, commit a crime, go to prison, escape from prison; and repeat; and repeat again. It can become tedious for the viewer as nothing new ever seems to occur, besides say the method of escape or the crime being committed. Those are not enough to invest this long a period of time. The sole reason the length is acceptable is the desire to see the outcome of the man. Curiosity gets the best of you and whether you should or not, you remain seated for the films entirety. Or maybe it is due to the violence, bank robberies, and thrill one develops for this life of crime. Mesrine and his girlfriend, Jeanne Schneider, are very much a Bonnie and Clyde duo, causing quite a bit of havoc and fun. It does not hurt also that Mesrine is charismatic, with a temper that can flair at any moment causing you to stir in your seat from the rage he is capable of expelling.
It is commendable on the part of Director Jean-Francois Richet to want to include each detail as it occurred. It is unfortunate then that Mesrine was not as unpredictable a criminal as one could hope. The split of the entire film into two parts then makes an incredible amount of sense as it breaks up the monotony of watching them together as one. For the sake of giving yourself time to breathe and absorb the information but also to stave off the feeling while watching that you have seen this film before. Much of the story, and even techniques, are familiar and very similar to a wealth of gangster movies that have come before. This could be seen as flattery, if those films were drawing ideas from the life of Mesrine, but given this film comes after they have been released it is difficult to not sit watching and go through your memory of movies trying to pinpoint exactly where you have seen something utilized before. The real enjoyment one finds in the movie is in part two. It is much more enigmatic, has somewhat higher stakes as Mesrine grows older and the authorities wiser to his methods, as well as a greater dimension of drama. Alas, it is impossible to watch one without the other so part one is required in order to understand much of what occurs in part two.
The Character of Jacques Mesrine
As interesting and enigmatic a character such as Jacques Mesrine, the script offers little about the man behind the status. To the audience he becomes a shell of a man trapped inside a life of crime we have no inclination as to why he has chosen it or exactly how it comes so easy to him. Vincent Cassel does an incredible job with his portrayal of Mesrine. He glides easily from ruthless mobster, loving father, unsympathetic criminal, friendly prisoner, and fame whore. But even with all of these changes in the outward expression of Mesrine the internal remains a mystery. There are a few clues as to how he grew to become this man. The film has an opening scene in a dark, dirty, dungeon-like room. Mesrine and other military personnel are in the midst of torturing a man for information. It is Mesrine who ultimately kills the man, signaling his ease for violence. He has a tumultuous relationship with his father, whom he views as weak, sparking the conclusion that he must counteract this issue. But neither of these instances play with the intention for analysis. They simply exist in the story, and are quickly overlooked.
The only real instances we see in his character harboring depth is when his fame is tested. Mesrine becomes to rely on being the center of attention in the public eye. He needs the press to follow his every move, as well as remain hunted by the authorities. As this status starts to crumble there is a great emotional response from him. The shell of a man theory is only made more prevalent then as his concerns for his family never drew such a reaction. It also pushes him to be more drastic in his actions. Mesrine only exists as others see him. His later life is spent trying to remain in people’s memory no matter the cost. His wish was granted by his public, over-the-top, death. Perhaps then the film is better in that it does not try to explain the man but merely presents him to the viewer. Even as Mesrine’s own autobiography contained more fiction than actual events, this film is not trying to convince us that we can know Mesrine. He remains an enigma that cannot be solved, just as any other sociopath.
Technique and Aesthetics
Both films utilize a variety of filming techniques that add a distinct style to the picture. Most notable is the split screen to show the same line of action moving through time. It is the same scene, with the same character, but we see the passage of time through the separate frames, not in a linear edited progression, as is customary. At the same time the scene will cut to another character, in the same line of action per se, to show the two existing in time in the same space together but we never actually see them together in the frame. It is a manipulation of time and space that heightens the levels of suspense for the viewer and makes the ultimate end all the more invigorating as to what will occur next since this is the main opening of Killer Instinct, as well as the end of Public Enemy #1. By opening with the ending the two films are inevitably tied together as one through a circular pattern and part two inevitably brings us back to part one, where it all began.
In scenes of great enclosure, like in the prison’s, a variety of angles through the cinematography accentuate the tight spaces and claustrophobic areas Mesrine is living in. Yet at the same time he is shown to be larger than life, shot from aerial views looking down on this large man in a small cage, or from the ground, emphasizing the persona he gravitates towards – that of an idol. An excellent shot occurs when he is naked, in solitary confinement. The fish-eye lens gives only a distorted glimpse into Mesrine’s solitude. Forcing the viewer to experience a voyeuristic moment as we watch him in great distress, yet cannot be present in his predicament in these horrific and tight quarters.
Considering the use of shadow and light we see two very different palettes from the first half of the story to the second. Killer Instint is much more subdued and dark. Shadows play a large part and the muted textures of surroundings apparent in displaying the mobster world of Mesrine as well as his more humble home life. When he reaches his celebrity status, and his ego grows to infinite proportions, the world becomes more bright. Everything has an embellished edge to it as if Mesrine has come out from the shadows to present himself to the world in a haze of glorified color. Even his girlfriend during this time, Jeanne Schneider (Cécile De France), is much more eccentric and voracious on screen than his first wife. She is the antithesis of his ex-wife, Sofia (Elena Anaya), as she loves the thrill of danger, while Sophia yearned for a quiet normal (crime free) life with the children. His last girlfriend, Sylvia Jeanjacquot (Ludivine Sagnier), can only be seen as his last ditch effort for youth as she is much younger, more naive, but incredibly beautiful. If there is one thing the film shows clearly about his character it is how much Mesrine loved the ladies, and the ladies loved Mesrine.
The varying changes between the two films is the only clear development of Mesrine’s character. As the filmic conventions change the viewer is clued in to the changing atmosphere of his life.
The FilmFracture Breakdown…
Killer Instinct: 2 clocks
Public Enemy #1: 3 clocks
Cinematography/Editing: 3 clocks (both films)
Writing: 2 clocks (both films)
Killer Instinct opens in theatres on August 27, 2010 and Public Enemy No. 1 on September 3, 2010. More information may be found on the film’s official website here.
The film as a whole has won the following awards to date:
* César Awards
– Best Actor, Vincent Cassel
– Best Director, Jean-François Richet
– Best Sound
* Lumiere Awards
– Best Actor, Vincent Cassel
* Étoiles d’Or
– Best Actor, Vincent Cassel
* Tokyo International Film Festival
– Best Actor, Vincent Cassel