Splitscreen Mesrine

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Vincent Cassel, disguised as film critic Jonathan Romney. It’s fun to watch his various disguises in MESRINE, which see him morph through Romney, Frankie Boyle, Lionel Jeffries and John Landis. Mesrine must have been the Mike Yarwood of armed robbery.

A gentle nudge was all it took to get me to finally watch MESRINE, which I’d had in my to-watch heap since it was almost new. The epic two-part biopic of France’s most wanted man on the 70s, it makes an interesting companion piece to Olivier Assayas’s CARLOS, but whereas “the Jackal” went from apparent political commitment (as long as serving the cause involved violent crime) to being basically a mercenary, Jacques Mesrine’s arc is from career criminal (burglary and bank robbery) to self-proclaimed revolutionary, although it’s plain that his so-called-politics begin and end with a resistance to following society’s rules.

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Vincent Cassel is as electrifying as you’d expect as the psychopathic Mesrine, justifying the title’s invocation of James Cagney by animating a character so unpredictable, awful, scary and entertaining as to dispense with any need for boring “sympathy” — though there are a few scenes which do humanize him. So the man cared about his kids — just not enough to give up robbing banks.

Supporting cast includes heavy-hitters Mathieu Amalric, Ludovine Sagnier and world’s favourite newborn Russian Gerard Depardieu, who seems to have suffered a number of explosions detonating inside him. But Depardieu’s ability to dominate a scene is undiminished by any outward expansion, and he displays a mastery of the cold smile technique that would make even Buddy Love tremble.

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The Depardieu nose-bum is getting more curvaceous with age, too. In a less tolerant society, that nose would have to wear pants.

As portrayed here, Jacques Mesrine flirts with the belief that there’s some kind of criminal code, and his actions rarely cross the line from self-serving to simply sick — most of his nastiest acts have a kind of practical logic behind them, but we also get plenty of scenes where Mesrine shows how utterly flexible his worldview really is, capable of expanding to fit the occasion, and basically OK with anything that advances his own interests. Interestingly, becoming “political” towards the end of his short, furious life, merely unleashes more cruelty and violence.

Instead of empathy, then, the film plays a cautious game with our admiration, for though devoid of truly appealing traits, Mesrine has a speed of thought and decisiveness that make him dazzling company, at a safe distance. Caught in the very act of burglary, he passes himself and his stymied colleague as policemen: “I’m afraid you’ve been burglarized,” and brazenly walks off with the loot. This cocky, improvisatory approach allows Mesrine to repeatedly escape from prison, with elaborate planning and split-second timing but also last-minute inspiration and nerves of steel.

As a “true story,” the film invites query since it purports to be based on the title character’s own memoir, and psychopaths are often free with the facts — moreover, the movie goes on for several years after the publication of the autobiography. An opening title candidly confesses that all films contain fiction, and the film’s first scene implants that idea more forcibly —

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It’s the last day of Mesrine’s life. He and his current girlfriend, wearing Harpo wigs and other items of disguise, are attempting to flee their bolthole. Director Jean-Francois Richet — who shows throughout a strong influence of Frankenheimer, I’d say — presents the action in splitscreen, often viewing the same character from multiple angles. But with a twist. As the taut scene unfolds, we recognize that the different angles show actions slightly out of sync. In fact, during a pair of continuous shots of Ludovine Sagnier, she might start out slightly ahead in the shot on the left of the screen, but then fall behind. So these are different takes, with subtly different timings. The device suggests that reality may seem different depending on who is looking at it.

At the end of part two, Richard repeats the sequence, without the splitscreen, but now showing the various cops spying on the action from places of concealment, preparing what is basically an extra-judicial assassination. The suspense is spine-shredding, even though we already know what’s going to happen…

In a rather lame way, this trailer tries to convince us that it’s for an American film. But I’m conflicted, because I do think eliminating all dialogue from trailers is often basically a good idea. And the kinetic match between the spinning robbers with shotguns and the spinning car is awfully exciting.

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4 Responses to “Splitscreen Mesrine”

  1. I haven’t read your piece because this is still in my ‘to-watch’ pile but you might enjoy these photos of the REAL Mesrine, man of a million faces:

  2. I think this piece is as spoiler-free as a movie which begins with the death of the hero can be.

    The poor French police had their work cut out for them, dealing with this deadly chameleon! I find the first image the most interesting — that man is so undistinguished it feels like he could walk into a bank and walk out carrying the vault and nobody would notice. All the versions with extreme haircuts look curiously alike.

  3. Vincent Cassel is more distinctive-looking that the real Mesrine.
    I think the fact that Mesrine became a pop culture phonom is more interesting than Mesrine himself.

  4. The movie soft-sells Mesrine’s amazing powers of persuasion, which must have had something to do with his ability to seduce the public. Apparently once, trapped in an upstairs flat by cops, he got away from them simply by running downstairs in a panic, shouting, “Mesrine’s in there!” They let him go and ran off to investigate.

    There’s a bit of that in the movie, but not as much as in his book, apparently.

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