Mesrine: Killer Instinct: Jean-François Richet’ Epic Crime Picture

Jean-François Richet’s “Mesrine: Killer Instinct,” the French crime gangster film, is an epic of ambitious proportions, and not just because of its 4-hour running time. “Mesrine” is released in two parts. The second part, “Mesrine: Public Enemy No 1,” which will be released later, is just as good as “Killer Instinct.”
Nominated for multiple César Awards, “Mesrine” deservedly won Best Actor for Vincent Cassel, who simply gives a towering performance, Best Director for Jean-François Richet, and Best Sound. “Mesrine” was also nominated for Best Film, Writing, Cinematography, Editing, Production Design, Costume Design and Original Music.
Showing that there is still juice in the old crime-gangster genre, Richet joins a group of talented French filmmakers who have made major contributions to this form over the last several years, including Jacques Audiard’s Oscar nominated “A Prophet,” and this year’s Cannes Fest hit, “Carlos,” directed by Olivier Assayas.
Mestrine’s rich, colorful life and criminal career offers rich material for an epic, thus the decision to present the portrait of Mesrine, a man whose life was full of ambiguities and contradictions, in two segments. Part One is called “Killer Instinct,” and Part Two “Public Enemy 1.”

More character than plot-driven, the epic film centers on Jacques Mesrine, a notorious bank robber, kidnapper, killer and shameless egomaniac of the 1960s. The French authorities considered him a menace to society, Public Enemy 1. Others perceived him as a folk hero, like the American Clyde Barrow or Jesse James, admiring his rebellious, anti-authoritarian personality and his refusal to abide by society’s rules—or by any laws.

When the first story begins, Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) is a loyal son and dedicated soldier back home, living with his parents after serving in the Algerian War. We get a glimpse of Mesrine fighting for the French army in Algeria, where he is ordered to torture without hesitation and shoot without raising any questions, thus suggesting that the French military was the first institution to shape and mold Mesrine into a monstrous animal, a killing machine

Nonetheless, soon he is seduced by the neon glamour of sixties Paris and the easy money it presents. Mentored by Guido (Gerald Depardieu) Mesrine turns his back on middle class law-abiding and soon moves swiftly up the criminal ladder.

After pulling off an audacious heist he and his lover Jeanne (Cecile de France) flee to Canada where the opportunity of one big payout lures him out of hiding and propels his towards international notoriety.
“Mestrine” makes it clear that neither the magnitude of his crimes, nor the multitude of his exploits, or even his sensational death would have made Jacques Mesrine such a legendary figure without the phenomenal sounding board provided by the media. His endless desire to entertain and his ability to transform himself attracted journalists, but also made it possible for him to use and manipulate them.
Though notorious as a gangster in Canada since the 1960s, Mesrine only became known in France in 1975 when, after reading an article in the French weekly L’Express, which was not to his liking, he sent a threatening letter to the editor. As a result, his picture appeared on the front page of the widely read publication. Two years later, after publishing “Death Instinct,” the autobiography he wrote in prison, a Paris courtroom was the scene for quite a show. Mesrine’s audacity and razor-sharp quips were fodder for the press corps, which eagerly reported choice nuggets, such as the following exchange:
The Judge: And what did you do with the money you took in the hold-up?
Mesrine: I put it in the bank, your honor. That’s still the safest place to keep it.
Up until March 1978, after his escape from La Santé prison, Mesrine never tired of writing to national newspapers in order to contradict or rectify an article concerning him. In fact, he provided Paris Match and Libération long interviews revealing the details of his escape, his life underground and his hopes for the future. He exploited the media at every turn, showing his good will by emphasizing his revolt against injustice and his battle to abolish maximum-security areas where detainees were held in isolation. This was a provocation for authorities and the police.  Mesrine never missed an opportunity to pose, face uncovered and weapon in hand, for the photographers.
Mesrine’s escape from prison was experienced by France as a live saga. Moreover, Mesrine had no hesitation about selling pictures of himself and his girlfriend, Sylvia Jean jacquot, to a weekly publication whose readership elected him 1978’s Man of the Year, finishing ahead of the Princess of Monaco.
Rendering a truly astonishing and dominant performance, Vincent Cassel holds the long, necessarily episodic film, on his robust shoulders. In addition to the Cesar, Cassel has also won a slew of other kudos: Lumiere Awards, Étoiles d’Or, and Best Actor from the Tokyo International Film Festival.
End Note: Spoiler Alert
The media allowed Mesrine to build his popularity. But the media also helped him to lose it through his own deeds. The 1979 abduction and torture of journalist Jacques Tillier ended when Mesrine left him for dead, all because he believed Tillier was an informer. His attempts to justify this act took the form of a wordy explanation sent as letters to the editors of Le Monde and Liberation. Three polaroids taken by Mesrine himself were enclosed, showing the victim completely naked, curled up on the floor, his hands tied behind his back and his face bloodied. This time around, readers were overcome with disgust. Mesrine’s taunts were no longer amusing. His contact with the media ceased. Two months later, Public Enemy No. 1 was shot to death by police.
Vincent Cassel
Cécile De France
Gérard Depardieu
Roy Dupuis
Gilles Lellouche

Released by Music Box