Better to Burn Out Than Fade Away
The second half of Jean-Francois Richet's four-hour telling of the exploits of Jacques Mesrine, Public Enemy No. 1, is a much more solid film, if less enjoyable. (Part I reviewed here.) While it's got all the same foibles, faults, and frenetic fun of the first film, it's a much more focused effort, considering it's pretty much a controlled slide into death. It opens following the death of Mesrine, and then shows us how this smiling maniac came crashing to his doom.
Mesrine, as told to a reporter he hijacks for an exclusive, never planned to live long. He knew he was fated to die in a hail of bullets. We know this as film watchers too, because that's how all criminals die, and Mesrine comes off as the amalgamation of all criminals. Again, we get some French luminaries shining in brief moments in the film, although the roles are slightly prolonged. Mostly, the second half of the film deals with Mesrine posturing as some kind of revolutionary -- this was the period of the Red Brigades in Italy, the Baader-Meinhof Complex in Germany, and the various Liberation Fronts. He's in constant competition with a wily detective in an Abraham Lincoln beard named Broussard, who seems dogged on dragging Mesrine in and keeping him in a deep dark cell forever. But that's not who our boy is, so we get some more heisting and humping, escaping and explaining before the ultimate fall.
Cassel's gotten fatter and more beardy as the film progresses. We're now into the 1970s, and it's a time of upheaval and revolution in the world. Mesrine's still robbing banks, but now he's trying to promote it as some sort of noble socialism quest, a protest against the governments and institutions. He's been pulling that same shit to an extent his entire life --- he kidnaps executives as part of the "Quebec Liberation Front" when he fled to Canada in the first film. Now when he pulls off heists, often running across the street while the alarm still sounds to rob a second bank, people recognize him. He's become a celebrity. And still, he's not getting the front page attention he deserves because of some guy named Pinochet.
So he writes a tell-all from prison: Killer Instinct. He wants his story told, he wants to be a French hero, a revolutionary who dies on the guillotine. But you never know if it's true or bullshit. And that's Mesrine's game throughout Public Enemy No. 1. He keeps trying to posture and push the envelope. He contacts journalists eager to get a scoop and winks at their cameramen while trying to expound upon the indignities of the prison system. He alienates all of his partners. Mesrine claims he's intent on taking out judges and bazookaing prisons. He wants to tear the system apart, so he robs banks.
During his last stint in prison, he uses his cult of personality and fame to practically run the place: TV in the cell, yard time whenever, first name chats with the guards. He becomes friends with Francois Besse (Mathieu Amalric), whose prison break record's on par with Mesrine. They escape, and they rob banks, and they get into gunfights. They end up the targets of a countrywide man-hunt, which breaks down like every other prisoner on the run movie you've ever seen, buoyed by the manic-eyed passion of Amalric's performance.
But even though the same old song and dance is being performed in the extended edition. If Besse is the quintessential heist partner -- principled, prison escaping, debating the Mesrine ploys -- then Mesrine's latest female conquest is pretty much the quintessential Mesrine woman. Ludivine Sagnier plays Sylvia Jeanjacquot, a high-end hooker that Mesrine spends his final days spoiling. Sagnier has made a career out of taking her clothing off, mincing about in flirty attire, and pouting, without ever once developing an on-screen personality. She's a pin-up blown-up-dolled to life, and as such, she's the perfect partner for Mesrine's Mesrine.
Again, Mesrine's version of events even comes with a convenient tape spoken to Sylvia "in case of death." Mesrine once more wants to be remembered as a great lover, and a criminal genius, and an honest robber. He wants his legacy to be remembered for being someone who embiggens the most noble spirit. But it's all bullshit. Mesrine's a fuck-her-and-chuck-her: from his brief tenure with his wife through his many temporary lovers. He cares less about the movement and message than the medium. Mesrine's an egotist who wants them to erect a statue of him in a park, but he doesn't care what they melt down to make the metal, be it gold ingots or orphan's wheelchairs. Just as long as they get his hair right.
And that's the ultimate failing of Mesrine. It's an egomaniac's maniac rant -- told entirely to make himself look good. It's an anti-hero who really has no hero in him. He's Batman running down schoolkids to get The Joker. You want to kind of like Mesrine, but at heart, he's a total shit. And you realize that the entire story you are watching is truthfully his hand-written bio. You can tell merely because the film is twice as long as a normal movie. Granted, they had a lot to pack in, and most of the narrative is told in breakneck vignette speed, but they could have left some stuff out. They could have made a tight, almost 3 hour film. It had enough car chases and gunfights to keep even the most tedious filmgoer entranced. Mostly, the entire film feels like a bloated rehashing of old campfire tales. You can probably do a breakdown of every scene and point out where it was done in a better movie. But even with all that, Mesrine's still a thoroughly watchable movie, and you will enjoy watching Cassel.
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