Mesrine, Public Enemy Number 1, is the follow up film to Mesrine Killer Instinct: but its a better film and a more interesting one. It shares the spectacle of the first film, there are the spectacular heists, there are the explosions, there is the sex appeal (thanks to Mme Sagnier) and there is the energy and movement in the plot. Furthermore there are the performances. Again the film hangs upon the performance of Vincent Cassell- he is the film, he is the dynamism, the verve and continuity in the film. The rest of the film swirls around his persona. But there are other performances here: Ludivine Sagnier can do better than play a coquette, but even as a coquette she has a charisma and screen presence that adds to the film. If Mesrine were to fall in love with such a limited character, then the only person he could fall in love with is this character portrayed by Sagnier. Equally important is Mathieu Almaric playing Mesrine's accomplice- Almaric's character is uptight and nervous, silent and vicious whereas Cassell is expansive and loud. Almaric is like a snake, wrapped up in his own coils and ready to spring, Cassell's Mesrine is laid back and louche, again there is the ever present threat of violence. Lastly there is a third performance here: Gerard Lanvin plays a socialist revolutionary, looks like a Provencal peasant and plays his part as though he were Baader!
So what makes this film better than the first film. Firstly the time line is more constrained- there are three main characters, you could say the film tells three stories that of Mesrine and Besse (Almaric's character), Mesrine and Sylvia (Sagnier's character) and Mesrine and Charlie (Lanvin's character). That's not quite accurate- the stories overlap but whereas the first film lacked cohesion with Mesrine having more paramours than I've had cups of tea and more plotlines than the Canterbury Tales- the second film is much more focussed. The film has to do less and therefore in its two and a half hours, we can see more about its stories. There are some moments which cloy- the relationship between Mesrine and his family, his father and daughter, is exaggerated emotionally but left undeveloped- the worst of all worlds is for a character you know to meet his daughter for the first time and both to start crying on camera and then never to see her again in the film! But the flaws are less impressive than the successes: at the end o the film I didn't remember the cloying sentimentality, I remembered the narrative verve.
There is more than narrative verve though. One of my real concerns with the first film was that there really didn't seem to be a theme. Half way through the second film, a theme does emerge and its an interesting one. Mesrine is a thug- he is a pretty unpleasant thug at that but in this film it emerges that he thinks he has a purpose- he thinks he is honest. Of course he isn't honest at all. He thinks he is against the system- whatever that is. Of course like many a revolutionary before or since, his anti-systemic instincts are merely the railings of a toddler like ego. Furthermore he thinks he has a virtue, a morality- the reality is that his ethics are about as convincing as rotten fish. Mesrine's eventual death (and this is not a spoiler as the incident is shown both at the beggining of this and the last film) is a good argument for judicial murder- not something I tend to condone! The revelation though that Mesrine is such a mindless, brutal killer using a faux revolutionary ideology as his justification is important. What noone asks and yet the film hints at several times, is that Mesrine does not really want to change the 'system', just to have the excuse to be violent which is arguing for extreme change to the system. His ego is supported by what he sees as his non-conformity but in truth it is the political equivalent of masturbation, thrilling but absolutely futile and ultimately merely the exercise of an over indulged ego.
Mesrine therefore is more than just a crime film- it is a study of something else- the evolution of extremism. As such it is an argument for political moderation- the people in the film who end up being exploited and carved up by the gangster are its silent heroes. Mesrine evolves into a political extremism. His violent, anti-social politics are a ex post facto justification for violent anti-social behaviour. In that sense the film makes two arguments: there is an argument for political action as accomodation and compromise buried within it. Stronger than that though is an argument that extremism in many of its types emerges not when a character is fortified against the system by their righteous anger but when a character is already righteously angry and in search of something to be angry about.
Coolidge described the way that Shakespeare wrote Iago in Othello as describing 'the motive hunting of a motiveless malignity'- Vincent Cassel's Mesrine has less intelligence and directly spills more blood than Iago, but the two characters in their essense are not that different.