Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Mesrine films by Jean-François Richet

"L'instinct de mort" ("The Death Instinct" and "L'ennemi public no.1" ("Public Ennemy Number 1")

Guillame Depardieu died in the year he was nominated for the César for best actor (see above for review of "Versailles"). However, despite the tragic real-life drama, Depardieu could not win the César over Vincent Cassel’s performance as Jacques Mesrine in the most popular French films of 2008, "L’instinct de mort" ("Death instinct") and "L’ennemi public no.1" ("Public Enemy Number 1"). The two films together form a bio-pic of France’s most famous criminal, a bank robber at his peak in the 70s, who increased his fame by escaping twice from prison and interviewing with top-selling magazines such as “Paris Match.” The films are based on Mesrine’s autobiography but heavily adapted by screenwriter Abdel Raouf Dafri who also directed a violent ghetto (banlieue) tv series “La commune.” The film follows a gangster formula, complete with car chases, gunfights, and suitcases of cash, but also takes on the prison-escape genre.
Although both films primarily glorify Mesrine, there are also frequent allusions to the Algerian War that seek our attention. L’instinct de mort begins where Mesrine learns to kill, Algerian War. Mesrine as a soldier, follows orders to torture and kill supposed FLN members in a prison, but shows his gallant side when he kills a male Algerian instead of a female. When he returns from war, Mesrine is bored by his employment possibilities and enticed by the money and women of the gangster lifestyle. He begins killing for mob boss Guido (Gérard Depardieu), who incidently is part of the OAS (Organization of the Secret Army) and they shoot Arabs together while jeering racist insults. Near the end of the second film, "L’ennemi public no.1", Mesrine decides to kill a right-wing journalist who has contradicted him. With another prison escapee who is also a left-wing activist, Mesrine meets the journalist at a cave entrance, and then baits the journalist inside, by offering an interview. After verbally assaulting him, Mesrine straggles the journalist with a scarf saying, “You want to know what I learned in the Algerian War, I’ll teach you.”
The symbolism of the sequence is overt; the French killed many Algerians who were hiding in caves with bombs, and strangulation was a common torture technique. Thus the murder of the journalist completely subverts the racism against Arabs demonstrated in the first film, and ensures the audience’s forgiveness. If Mesrine kills Arabs by order or for money in part I, before the end of his life he does penance by torturing and assassinating a xenophobic nationalist mouthpiece. Mesrine does not suffer for the crimes he committed during the Algerian War, but takes vengeance on their interpretation in the years following Algeria’s liberation. The likes of this journalist and his politics, which recall the National Front, could easily be found in contemporary French media. This makes the brutal murder more engaging for the 2008 public, and doubles their respect for the hero.
Cassel executes Mesrine’s bow legged swagger and fast-paced Parisian slang with the bravado indicative of his character’s criminal career. Cassel was so dedicated to the role that he gained a true pot belly, which is exposed in several pretzel love scenes, for authenticity. This achievement garnered Cassel the César for best actor, and Jean-François Richet, the director in charge of the impersonation and all the action editing, a César for best director. However, though the Mesrine features were the most successful films at the French box office in 2008, they did not win the board’s selection for best picture. It was Mesrine’s alter-ego Séraphine (Yolande Moreau), an early 20th century maid come primitive artist, who walked the stage for best actress, and her film ("Séraphine") which stole the best film trophy from the bank robber. In this instance the César committee did yield to the Hollywood pressure of the action film, but transgressed the box office to award a lesser-known biographical film on a lesser-known artist.

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