Richet’s Mesrine films deserve a place in crime film canon

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Vincent Cassel’s performance anchors the film

By Phil Brown, Reporter

Why do we love stories of crime and vice? 
 
From Macbeth and Dorian Gray to The Godfather, Scarface and The Wolf Of Wall Street, our society throughout the years seems to obsess over tragic, brutal characters, whether real or imagined. Jacques Mesrine was idolized in his own time by a French public fascinated by his bloody exploits, and in a 2008 film, both the subject and the obsession are documented in lavish, enigmatic style.
 
Mesrine: L’instinct de mort (Killer Instinct), and the real-life man who serves as the film’s namesake, are introduced to us through a third party, an anonymous red-haired woman making her way through gray city streets. 
 
The opening sequence is shot from several points of view, and shown side by side in squares of shifting size and location. The different viewpoint follows the woman as she walks, hesitates, searches the street for signs of life and as Mesrine himself makes an appearance. 
 
Every subtle movement is reflected differently in each view, occurs at a different time or seems to betray a different emotion.
 
This artifice seems to illustrate the uncertain view it, with the public in general, appears to have of it’s central character: Jacques Mesrine, the notorious full-time bank-robber and part-time revolutionary who pilfered, kidnapped and murdered his way across France and Quebec in the 1960s. 
 
Mesrine was flashy, handsome and incredibly daring, and his globe-trotting antics caught the imagination of the media and general public, who sometimes ascribed noble, Robin-Hoodesque features to the dashing thief. 
 
Killer Instinct, based on the autobiography of the same name, is one part of a two films that make up director Jean-François Richet’s 
 
Mesrine saga, and with its brother, L’ennemi public n°1, combine to tell a 246-minute epic chronicling the rise and fall of Mesrine’s criminal career. 
 
It takes a somewhat nihilistic approach to the subject, refusing to overtly imply any meaning to the tale of blood and money, and allowing Cassel’s Mesrine free reign to explain himself, as contradictory of a character he is.
 
A lover, a rogue, a father, a rebel. 
 
Mesrine is all of them, and in the first film, seems incapable of making a distinction between the roles. 
 
Mesrine learns violence and racism from the military, but also picks up a hatred for the establishment, and the powers that be, and he uses all of them alternately as tools both to gain what he wants, and to justify himself in getting it. 
 
Mesrine becomes fascinated with the power he can wield over other people, first with the threat of violence, and then, with the more potent and lasting power of romance. It’s a romantic hero the world sees reflected back at them when they read the papers and see Mesrine’s smiling face, a version of themselves that fights back against what holds them back. A darker, but freer existence. 
 
Mesrine uses this idea to influence others, and in a way, comes to believe in it himself, even as the film refuses to shy away from the brutal reality of his exploits, the ones that aren’t printed in the papers.
Cassel is the centerpiece, and he dials in a very memorable and complete performance. He’s a perfect Mesrine, hitting every note in the symphony of brutal charisma. The production rightfully swept the French awards scene. 
 
While there is a language barrier, the physicality of Cassel’s performance and the urgent, expressive cinematography do much to erase it. And the language is more than appropriate given the subject and setting. 
 
Mesrine, the film, is a near-perfect crime movie, and worthy of being mentioned alongside any of the English-language classics.

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Photos courtesy of Music Box Films Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) and Paul (Gilles Lellouche) in Mesrine: Killer Instinct.
Photos courtesy of Music Box Films
Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) and Paul (Gilles Lellouche) in Mesrine: Killer Instinct.

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