This short piece was originally written in the summer of 2011 for CIP.
In 1975, Jacques Mesrine was voted, according to film director Jean-Francois Richet, “the most popular man in France”. And with the completion of Richet’s diptych film Mesrine in 2008, it seems to still be true. Jacques Mesrine was the stuff of Bonnie & Clyde stories in modern France. He was at once a criminal and at once a social rebel; propelled to such a position by his own criminal actions.
His story is the subject of these two companion films by Jean-Francois Richet. The first film, L’Instinct De Mort is based on Mesrine’s own memoir published while he was in prison during the mid 1970s. The second film, Ennemi Public No. 1, tells the rest of Mesrine’s story not depicted in his memoir (for which part one of the film is named), which occurs after his escape from prison. The division of this narrative between two films seems to highlight Mesrine’s position in the media. Before he first went to prison or published his memoir, he had not reached the infamy that would later be bestowed upon him after the publication. Therefore, the films depict an escalating criminality in one man, who came to represent leftist radicalism in France, though he himself did not fully comprehend as much.
Given the nature of the subject and the narrative construction of it’s depiction, it seems a logical vehicle for director Richet, who also comes from the lower working class of France and even made his debut feature (Etat des lieux, 1995) with the winnings from a casino. Subject and director seem to assume an equal radicalism in their own respective ways, and I believe this is what prevents Richet from presenting Mesrine as a martyr. Rather, Richet and actor Vincent Cassel (cast as Mesrine) work very hard and skillfully to remain objective, and not let the obvious romanticism of the story influence their depictions of Mesrine. In fact, the entire film was shot in reverse of it’s narrative order so that as Cassel began playing a younger and younger Mesrine, he could lose the weight he gained to play the older version of the character. Such was the commitment of those involved in the making of the film.
As a film, Richet’s Mesrine stands out among the trend of biopics in the cinema of the passed decade. Mainly for it’s diptych presentation, but also for it’s objectivity. Even in the very choice of subject matter it is unique. Films like Milk, Ray, Ali, etc. that are churned out of Hollywood regularly choose as their subjects respectable idols, not criminals, outlaws and dangerous radicals. But the latter is in fact the story of Richet’s film, a film that examines it’s subject beyond the historical context his subject called home. Instead, Richet seems to be looking for a place for Mesrine in the history of France.