September 03, 2009

Mesrine: Killer Instinct

Some films just look good. It is hard not to love the look of Casino with DeNiro and Stone looking fantastic- its hard not to savour the beauty of Grace Kelly and grace of Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief. Films that look good seduce you with their aspect- we all know that we are more likely to evaluate something well if it looks like it is beautiful. In that sense, my bias towards Mesrine should be obvious. Vincent Cassell could stand in for any of the cast in Goodfellas. Cecile de France seductively motions him over in a bar with cool sensuality. Elena Anaya sees through the man but falls for him. The actors are like a list of the great stars of France- Cassel, de France, Ludivine Sagnier, Gerard Depardieu- and the decor is done absolutely right as well with casinos and prisons, the first in opulent style, the second in all its magnificent grimy terror. This is a film that looks as though a million dollars was spent on it and I would not be surprised if it wins awards for cinematography, dress and style. But leaving that aside what is it like as a film?

Jacques Mesrine was a horrible man- he was guilty of murders, thefts and other assorted crimes- there can be no condoning his brand of violent thuggery and as such a film about him has to tread a narrow line. It must make the character interesting enough for an audience to want to spend two hours with, but must also leave you in no doubt as to the real horrors that he perpetrated. You must see the attraction that many people felt but also feel the repulsion of the moral scandal that that attraction represents. To watch a film about Mesrine is to feel a dual impulse- one towards him and a reflective one away from him. Many films about crime are based around this dual impulse- Goodfellas is an example of a film that lures you in, making you see why the gangster life might be attractive but then exposes it for what it really is, brutal and harsh. Mesrine Killer Instinct is not so interested in that dichotomy. It is there: as I commented the film is beautiful and the beauty is attractive. A girlfriend as good looking as De France or Seigner, a suit as sharp as Mesrine's and a mentor as wise as Depardieu are all things that one might look for in life: and the other side too is probed, we see Mesrine's mindless violence and brutality. We see him put a gun inside his wife's throat as their baby son watches- we see him bury someone alive- but the connection between the two is not drawn.

So what is the film really about? This I suppose is where my problem with the film comes in. There were gun battles and sexy dames gallor- but I still cannot work out what the film was saying, what story of Mesrine it was presenting. In part this is because the story was not allowed enough time to develop- in a desire to tell to the full a life which circumnavigated the globe, from Algeria, to Paris and thence to Toronto, the film maker has forgotten to allow his audience to catch up. Mesrine's women were a blur of sexy dresses, his career a blur of shootouts and allies. Hopefully in part 2 of the film whcih covers the last couple of years of his life, the director can slow down, but part 1 definitely felt too fast. The charisma of the actors also detracted from the film. Cassell is wonderful as Mesrine- De France commands a screen as does Depardieu and we could go on, but the problem with commanding cameos is that they leave very little space for the film to develop as a whole. Instead we have little sections- it feels like the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah single, the Intro and Outro, where every band member joined, to Stanshall's commentary, for a bar- 'and now we have Gerard Depardieu as a ganster, and now we have Cecile de France as a whore, the Marx Brothers on the xylophone' etc etc. Films need a consistency and a theme- they need like a piece of music to have a strain running through them that integrates the parts into a whole.

There are ideas embedded in the film. Mesrine might have been the product of his service in Algeria for the French elite corps of torturers. He might have been the product of his relationship with his collaborationist dad and his dominant mother. He might have been the product of a couple of bad friendships but though those ideas are mentioned, they are not developed, once noted they are forgotten. The only strand which holds the movie together is the charisma of Cassell's performance- it provides the continuity. The film ultimately does not have a point because its only point is his magnetism: what it does have though is the qualities of his magnetism and that of the other stars who circle him. Rather than damning its failure, we should recognise what it does have- a smart sheen and good performances- it is no more or less than a pretty film.

Keats said 'Beauty is truth and truth beauty'- in this case the identity does not work, but I don't think it is an unworthy film to see and hopefully a less hurried part 2 will explain and justify the prettiness of part 1.


James Higham said...

I find this fixation with the perpetrator unsettling. The victim should get more of our attention.