erik lundegaard


Mesrine: L'ennemi public no. 1 (2008)


No one has a chance against French gangster Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassell).

Which is to say: no one in the audience has a chance to root for anyone else in the movie. He may kill and steal, he may be sadistic and egomaniacal, he may get fat and wear the most ridiculous hair and beard styles of the 1970s, but he’s still the main guy in the movie, the main force, the main man. His eyes are alight. He makes big French meals and gets beautiful French women—sometimes two at a time. He has fun. The cops, in comparison, are beady-eyed things, the journalists either left-wing dupes or right-wing liars, his fellow criminals dull company men. Everyone scrimps, whispers, scuttles. Mesrine booms.

Only once does he meet his match, and that’s when he kidnaps 82-year-old real estate mogul Henri Leličvre (Georges Wilson). At the grand estate where Leličvre lives, Mesrine and his mostly silent partner Francois Besse (Mathieu Amalric) pretend to be cops who need to question Leličvre about some of his properties. Leličvre is 82 and looks it. He moves slowly, seems fragile. One cringes at the thought of him in the hands of these brutes, and, sure enough, before we know it, he’s sitting on the edge of a cot in a small room, perplexed, wondering what they want with him. Mesrine gloats. They’ve kidnapped him! They’re demanding 10 million francs! Then the fun begins. Leličvre says aloud, “10 million? I’m 82,” and shakes his head. The businessman in him is insulted at the price even though it’s his own neck on the line. Mesrine is taken aback. He bargains. Eight million? Seven million? In the end they agree to six million over three installments. Leličvre may be 82 and helpless, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to get ripped off.

The 1970s were an absurd time, both in the states and abroad, and “Mesrine: L'ennemi public n°1,” the second part of Jean-Francois Richet’s nearly four-hour staccato biopic, reflects that absurdity. Against a backdrop of organizations attempting to bring down the system—PLO, Baader-Meinhoff, Red Brigades—Mesrine, an uncommon criminal with a gift for gab, impersonation and escape, passes himself off as a man of the people. In reality he’s just a violent man who can’t bear the 9-to-5 life. We’re intrigued by the second part, repelled by the first, but in the end I still wondered, as I did at the end of part one, “What’s the point? Why portray this life?”

Part two begins back in France, in 1973, with Mesrine (pronounced May-reen) incarcerated, bragging to the cops that he’ll break out in three months. It doesn’t even take that long. On the way to trial, he claims sickness, needs to use the bathroom. Even as the cops hold onto one end of his handcuffs behind the bathroom door, he, a la Michael Corleone in “The Godfather,” reaches behind the toilet tank to retrieve a revolver his pal left there. He takes it into court and, boom boom, uses it, and a judge/hostage, to escape.

For the first half-hour we get various escapes, where the back window of Mesrine’s car is invariably shot out, and where spectacular car crashes invariably occur but Mesrine’s car invariably limps to safety. Bullets fly but everyone’s a pretty lousy shot. Occasionally one of the bad guys gets winged but that’s about it. Juxtapose these action scenes with a few family reunions. A disguised Mesrine reconciles with his dying father. An incarcerated Mesrine clumsily bonds with his teenaged daughter. Cassell is brilliant in all of this. His own father, actor Jean-Pierre Cassell, was dying of cancer at the time, and the deathbed scene with his on-screen father, who would’ve been played by his actual father if cancer hadn’t reared its ugly head, is particularly intense.

In September ’73 Mesrine is finally captured (again), and in prison he rails against, not the cops or the system, but the Chilean coup that stole his press. “Pinochet, Pinochet,” he complains, flicking his hand at a newspaper. Filling a gap, he demands a typewriter and writes his own memoirs, “L’instinct de mort,” which became the basis for the first part of the film. But it takes him five years to live up to his promise of another escape.

For the rest of the film he complains about maximum security facilities, but we don’t see much of this incarceration so don’t know what he’s complaining about. He meets Besse, a no-nonsense crook who does prison-yard pushups even as Mesrine’s body goes to pot, and they plot escape. But the five years, interminable for him, go like that for us. Plus the escape isn’t that cool. Besse is able to hide a can of mace inside a box of Petit Beurre, and when the guards’ metal detector goes off during a routine search they assume it’s the tinfoil packaging and don’t look inside. As for how Mesrine gets his guns? His lawyer brings them. Hardly Andy Dufresne at Shawshank. (Also untrue? According to Wikipedia, guards smuggled in the weapons.)

The larger-than-life Mesrine and the smaller-than-life Besse make a good team. Post-escape, they rob a casino and go on the lam. A stream they’re fording turns out to be much deeper than the optimistic Mesrine anticipated, so he attempts, optimistically again, to toss the loot onto the other side. It splashes in the water, floats downstream, sinks. “That’s your share!” Besse complains bitterly. Then the punchline. He spots a rowboat, 10 feet away, on their side of the river. The fording wasn’t necessary. As an army of men, arms linked, march across a field to capture them, they make their escape via dingy, half their loot unnecessarily, optimistically spent.

“Mesrine” part II contains parallels with part I—Mesrine hooks up with a girl (Ludivine Sagnier), he hooks up with different partners, he kidnaps an old, rich dude—but the most pungent parallel is the kidnapping and near-murder of French journalist Jacques Dallier (read: Tillier, played by Alain Fromager), which echoes, and provides an overall bookend with, the kidnapping and murder of Ahmed the Pimp in “L’instinct de mort.” In both, the victim goes on a car ride with Mesrine and another man. In both, he assumes he’s safe. In both, he’s toyed with in sadistic fashion, then stripped naked, beaten, shot or stabbed, and left for dead. Finally, in both, neither victim is particularly sympathetic. Ahmed is a pimp who beats women; Dallier is a right-wing, racist snitch. Each scene shows Mesrine at his worst.

We needed more such scenes. Not to be too Will Hays about this, but Mesrine was a nasty, opportunistic man, and Cassell is entirely too charismatic to play him so we don’t want to be him. He’s living large, getting babes, talking trash. Sure, he winds up in a pool of his own blood, at the hands of frightened policemen, but he’s our eyes and ears through this world, and he’s the only one having any kind of fun. He’s still the man. As for a larger point in the biopic? It escapes me.

Sidenote: Just as Mesrine’s ’73 capture coincided with the Chilean coup, which stole his press, so his death, on November 2, 1979, occurred two days before Iranian students stormed the American embassy in Tehran and took hostages. One imagines him in the afterlife, complaining bitterly: “Khomeini, Khomeini.” One imagines him demanding a typewriter to set the record straight.

—September 4, 2010

© 2010 Erik Lundegaard