Friday, February 4, 2011
MESRINE: PUBLIC ENEMY #1 (PART TWO) / Staff review by Evan Salazar
A recent trend in foreign films is to allow those who are historically usually considered “the bad guys” to tell their side of the story. THE BAADER-MEINHOF COMPLEX, CARLOS, and CHE have all been critically-acclaimed films about revolutionaries, terrorists, and depending on who you ask, just plain ol’ thugs. The films sometimes walk the fence between giving any definite opinion on their subjects, but the films do not deny that these people had strong ideas and statements. Maybe the idea got away from them, or maybe it was fully realized. Regardless, it’s hard to deny that the groups or people these films focus on stood for something.
Enter Jacques Mesrine (played by the fiery Vincent Cassel), the titular subject of PUBLIC ENEMY #1, a continuation of the MESRINE saga from KILLER INSTINCT. Jacques Mesrine was not a revolutionary, but he certainly wanted to be one. His crimes were not backed by any sort of ideology and the film suggests this was his one insecurity. Mesrine kidnaps a French billionaire and claims that the Palestinian Liberation Front is holding him hostage. “I’m not even Jewish!” the hostage yells back. Frustrated, Mesrine barks ransom orders at the man and storms out. His bluff has been called. Yes, Mesrine was a master of escaping prison and robbing banks, but an intellectual and a radical he was not.
Mesrine was not an anarchist nor a nihilist, but his actions were anarchic and nihilistic. Coming off the high from escaping back to France, Mesrine trolls its streets, firing haphazardly and making up the plan as he goes. The film explores Mesrine’s insatiable need for destruction and respect; “Who is this Pinochet?” Mesrine, reading a newspaper, yells at a prison guard. “Why is he on the front page and I’m not?” So angered by this, Mesrine decides to write a book about his criminal life -- whatever he can do to be relevant and acknowledged.
Meatier than the one before it, PUBLIC ENEMY #1 shines the light more intensely on Mesrine the person as opposed to Mesrine the criminal. He doesn’t have the smarts of fellow thug Francois (played by French cinema mainstay Mathieu Amalric, who has been popping up in practically every French film brought over to America, from THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY to A CHRISTMAS TALE), or the radical idealism of friend Charlie (played by Gerard Lanvin). Mesrine is a criminal in a rapidly progressing world, where idealism is winning out over gratuitous cruelty.
But don’t mistake these philosophical musings for being all the film is about. At 133 minutes, the film spends just as much time in the midst of car chases, gunshots, and jailbreaks. One would most likely call this an action film before they’d call it a drama. Mesrine, now a bit plumper and sporting a mullet, is still a menace; the film opens with a spectacular botched robbery that sets the bar high for the action sequences to come. Action junkies will not be disappointed. The photography is also immaculate: the camera swoops cleanly and coherently through the madness, capturing it all in bloody detail. The film is visually rich, playing with multiple styles and locations that all cohere to create a visceral, gritty mise-en-scene. It is razor sharp and exact.
Looked at as a four-and-a-half-hour epic, MESRINE is a story of dreams that are, inevitably, bigger than the man – no matter how big the man is. Mesrine’s shadow loomed large: he had beautiful women, charisma, and the fear of France in the palm of his hand. But as man is wont to do, he squandered it. The filmmakers, however, did not squander the rich material mined from Jacques Mesrine’s life. They have created a pair of films that are assured, tenacious, and exciting as all hell. Mesrine would have been happy to be paid the honor.
By Evan Salazar, full-time student, part-time Floor Staffer, all-around cineaste extraordinaire.