The psychopaths in film series of reviews continues with our look at Mesrine, a two part French biographical crime thriller based on the infamous French career criminal Jacques Mesrine. It is directed by Jean-Francois Richet and was released in 2008 to widespread critical acclaim. The film is actually a double biller, split into two separate films – Killer Instinct and Public Enemy Number One.
Click here to view the boxset of both films on Amazon.
Killer Instinct charts the rise of Jacques Mesrine as a small time gangster in 1960s Paris following his role in the Algerian war, and his subsequent exile, arrest and incarceration in Canada. Public Enemy Number One covers his later life upon his return to France, with his involvement in several high profile bank robberies and kidnappings before his eventual demise at the hands of the police in 1979.
The films feature some high profile French actors, including Vincent Cassel, Gerard Depardieu, Mathieu Almaric and Cecile De France. Cassel delivers an electrifying and animated performance as the eponymous Mesrine, Depardieu plays Guido, his crime underworld mentor in Part 1, Almaric plays his accomplice Francois Besse in Part 2 and Cecile De France plays his partner Jeanne Schneider in Part 1.
All the leading and backup performances are strong and engaging but Cassel steals the show with his portrayal of Mesrine as a charismatic, humorous, volatile, entertaining but ultimately deeply violent and psychopathic character responsible for the deaths by his own accounts of 39 people during his criminal career.
Cassel’s performance is superb and captures the paradoxical, divided, “Jekyll and Hyde” nature of Mesrine’s character. Some scenes will make you laugh but other scenes will horrify you and ultimately the viewer may be left conflicted as to whether they should side with Mesrine or not, such is the charismatic performance given by Cassel.
Interestingly Cassel himself is unambiguous in his views on Mesrine, arguing that he was not a hero at all but simply a thief who made all kinds of excuses to justify his behaviour. Indeed Cassel initially refused to sign on for the film until the script was re-written to make it less complimentary and romanticised towards the legend of Mesrine.
Nevertheless Cassel is such a powerful and dominant screen presence in this two part epic that the viewer sometimes struggles not to like him. In fairness this romanticization is brought crashing down to earth by depicting some more horrendous sides to his character; a charismatic charmer who can entertain but also brutally murder and mistreat others.
Cassel – Mesrine was a thief
Click here to view Mesrine on Amazon
The Roots of Mesrine’s Psychopathy
Let us make no doubt about it – the Jacques Mesrine character as portrayed in the movie and also the real life account of his behaviour is undoubtedly psychopathic. Regardless of his ability to be charming and charismatic at times, he is also a character capable of viciously and coldly murdering anyone that gets in his way, responsible by his own real life admission for several dozen deaths.
In this sense we argue that even the final release of the film with the revised script is still a little too biased in favor of Mesrine, in the second part especially. The nasty bits are undoubtedly psychopathic but the more human displays of his character are a little too human for someone who could basically be a violent monster. There is likely some creative license used here by the filmmakers.
Right at the start of Killer Instinct though, we see where much of his psychopathic behaviour comes from. He is a soldier in the Algerian war, initially in the scene appearing to be a reluctant and slightly apprehensive witness to torture.
This view is shattered when we see him brutally murder several people when prompted to do so and the scene brilliant portrays the corrupting effect of this kind of enforced initiation into the psychopathic murder of people that war can provoke. The scene is then set for us to understand, if not condone, where much of his later behaviour comes from.
There are reports of the real life Mesrine getting into scrapes at school as a youngster, but his role in the Algerian war does appear to have been a negative turning point in his character. Indeed his real father noted he was “never quite the same” after returning from the war and the film parallels with his real life story on this issue.
A Dishonest Character
We see him return to normal family life in Paris, but very quickly we see him appear bored and unsatisfied with a straight laced, clean, “safe” lifestyle. His father has found him a legal job but he shuns this in favor of low life crimes and easy money and he quickly splits from his parents, brutally putting down his Dad in the process.
Cassel depicts in these scenes a corrupted, angry person who does not want to make an honest living and truly earn what he has. It is as though dishonesty and crime comes to him naturally. Even his initial accomplice is taken aback by how easily this apparent crime “novice” is able to take the lead and lie and bullshit his way out of incriminating situations.
Due to this ability he quickly gains a reputation and meets Guido, the head of a local small time crime operation. Guido acts as a kind of mentor but in doing so draws him further into the world of crime and so corrupting his character even further.
He does briefly “go straight” again after getting out of jail but we always get the sense that living any kind of straight life does not come naturally to him and sure enough when a chance to leave and go back to a life of crime presents itself, he takes it immediately. “It’s who I am” he later tells his father, trying to justify his behaviour.
Psychopaths are always trying to make excuses and rationalizations for their behaviour and the way they treat people and the charisma of Cassel’s performance almost allows his characterization of Mesrine to pull this off. To balance this out, Cassel puts just as much energy into the darker scenes so you see the best and worst of the Mesrine character with equal force and impact.
A Volatile Character
As the film progresses you also see the volatile and changeable nature of Mesrine’s character, in that typical psychopathic manner of being able to suddenly flip and turn on a dime. A conversation can be going fine but then there is a burst of anger and aggression that shows a more toxic side to the character.
Early on in Killer Instinct, we seem he regard a semi girlfriend in an unsettling way, confronting her on an innocent, well meaning suggestion she makes. The conversation goes from pleasant to toxic on the turn of a dime and it adds an air of unpredictability to the character.
His relationship with his first proper wife Sofia (Elena Anaya) follows a similar pattern. The scene where he meets her is played romantically and Mesrine comes across as charming and sensitive. Less than 20 minutes later he beats her and has a gun in her mouth, threatening to kill her, in an instant laying waste to everything he has built with her in the typical way psychopaths do. They are inherently destructive characters.
It comes as no surprise then that none of his relationships survived the test of time, either in real life or the film. As the films progress he has lots of girlfriends and accomplices in different countries, yet none of them seem to really matter to him and he is able to move on very quickly from them.
He also acts impulsively and excessively in a way that pisses off some of his accomplices, always taking everything to extremes and in some cases driving them away because they start to see him as a liability. In Public Enemy Number One his current girlfriend Sylvie exclaims that he drove his friend Francois Besse (Almaric) away “because you always have to have the last word”.
Prison and Punishment
Another clever motif that runs through the film, and one that swings the picture back a litte in favour of Mesrine, is the depiction of how criminals are punished and “rehabilitated” in the prison system.
When he and his friend Jean Paul Mercier (Roy Dupuis) are inprisoned in Canada at a correctional facility, they are brutally beaten and tortured in a sadistic way. The thinking behind this is to knock hardened criminals “back into line” and develop conformity in them.
Of course the treatment does nothing of the sort and just makes Mesrine ever more hateful of authority and even more determined to escape. The prison warden takes pleasure in seeing Mesrine broken down psychologically and physically and there is an underlying sadism and cruelty there which may make some briefly root for Mesrine.
This cleverly raises the issue of the true psychological motivation for punishment, with the idea being that the supposed rehabilitators are sometimes actually no better than the people they are punishing in that they have exactly the same violence and sadism internally as psychopaths like Mesrine. This was also a theme explored in A Clockwork Orange.
The warden Gauthier comes across as someone who couldn’t care less about goodness and justice for it’s own sake, but just takes pleasure himself in torturing and controlling others like Mesrine. Some viewers may see it as Mesrine getting a taste of his own medicine; others may see it as institutionalized psychopathy that is no better than career criminals like Mesrine and has no moral high ground at all.
A Toxic Character Full of Excuses
Whatever the superficial charm and apparent good sides to the Jacques Mesrine character, both in the film and real life, the fact is that he was a deeply violent, troubled man who murdered many people and and caused a lot of damage in the lives of others.
He had an endless list of excuses and rationalizations to try and justify this behaviour, and towards the end of Public Enemy Number One he rattles a lot of them off in a secretive interview he organizes whilst on the run. “I don’t like laws”, “I don’t want to live by my alarm clock”, “I don’t want to walk past a shop and see something I’d have to work 10 months to buy” and so on.
These are all just excuses to cover up the fact he was basically a dishonest character who did not want to earn an honest living nor live an honest life. There was a constant desire for the unearned, a desire to have what he wanted without putting the work in to get it, which underlies a toxic sense of entitlement which he was willing to kill to satisfy.
Cassel also paints an image of a superficial, shallow man, obsessed with his own self image and publicity and emotionally volatile in his relationships with others, never truly attaching to anyone. In this sense he hits the nail on the head regarding the psychopathic aspects to Mesrine’s character.
The lighter sides of Mesrine’s character as depicted in the film are entertaining and funny and Cassel’s performance is phenomenal in painting the contradictions and paradoxes in his character, with the good being good but the bad being very, very bad. There is no doubt some creative license used by the filmmakers but Mesrine is essential viewing for anyone interested in intelligent, well made crime thrillers.
The 2008 Mesrine Film comes in 2 parts – Killer Instinct and Public Enermy Number One. We link to the combined pack of both discs; each film is available separately on most stores. See also The Death Instinct book written by Mesrine himself and also Carey Schofield’s biography of his life.
Part 1 of Mesrine is also available with a free trial of Amazon Prime, which can be cancelled at any time. Part 2 can also be rented on the platform. Click here to get the free 30 day trial.