[Contains murderous mutton-chops and SPOILERS!!!]
Considering how dissatisfied I am with bio-pics as a genre, I’m not sure why I keep buying the damn things… but I was still feeling a Spiral-shaped hole in my heart when I saw a copy of Mesrine (2008) going cheap in a charity shop, and simply couldn’t resist. I was also naively hoping that the Curse of Compression would be mitigated by the fact that the film-makers had chosen to split the story of French gangster Jacques Mesrine over two feature-length instalments, little realising that the guy committed enough misdeeds (in different countries) to fill several lengthy seasons of a TV series! The pre-titles disclaimer reminds us that “No film can faithfully reproduce the complexity of a human life”, so I’m certainly not going to attempt it in this blog post… but I was fascinated by the effect that various women had on his fate…
Part 1, Killer Instinct (aka “L’instinct de Mort”), begins with a lengthy split-screen title sequence, in which an older Mesrine attempts to flee unspecified enemies accompanied by an unidentified female*, but soon finds himself facing a drive-by firing squad… then we flash back to Mesrine’s early years as a solider during the Algerian War, where he’s ordered to shoot a female prisoner (Leïla Bekhti), to intimidate a pair of captured Algerian bomb-makers into revealing their plans, but chooses to shoot one of the male prisoners (her brother) instead. After the war he returns to Paris, and reconnects with an old school friend who coaxes him into a life of petty crime, and introduces him to ‘Sarah’ (Florence Thomassin), an amenable prostitute whose face is subsequently mutilated by an abusive Arab pimp after Mesrine unsuccessfully attempts to “rescue” her from his clutches. In retaliation, Mesrine and his gangster “godfather” ‘Guido’ (Gérard Depardieu) lure the unsuspecting a-hole out to the countryside, then stab him up and bury him alive in an unmarked grave. Even though I despised his character, I have to applaud Abdelhafid Metalsi, the actor playing ‘Ahmed’, because that wounded look on his face when his captors started swapping racist jokes in the back of the car was so endearing, he almost made me feel sorry for the guy! [Note: Both Thomassin and Metalsi appeared in the fourth season of Spiral, but I don’t know if they had any scenes together]
After this incident, Mesrine and his pal swan off for a holiday on the Canary Islands, where he meets and falls in love with ‘Sofia’, a beautiful Spanish naïf played by Elena Anaya. He comes on quite heavy when he’s trying to seduce her in the dance club, leading her to retreat with her gal-pals… only to show up on his hotel room doorstep later that night, looking for a little sugar. They begin to kiss, move to the bed, and she hesitantly confesses that she’s a virgin, at which point Mesrine is chivalrous enough to slow down and prioritise her pleasure. The sweetness of this early courtship is in stark contrast to the way he treats her after they’ve married and had children, and he’s spent a long stretch in prison for armed robbery… one hasty threat to call the police on her husband if he returns to his larcenous ways spurs him to shove a loaded pistol in her mouth, and rudely remind her how little she means to him, compared to his criminal cohorts. Harsh. They eventually divorce, and Mesrine retains custody of their children… until he gets clipped during a drive-by shooting while out walking with his daughter, and decides they’re probably safer living with his law-abiding parents. [In the film’s excellent and insightful “making of” featurette, Anaya suggests that Sofia was basically buying her freedom when she left the kids with Mesrine, fearing that if she took them with her, he would have hunted her down and exacted a violent revenge. Again, harsh.]
Then Mesrine meets Jeanne Schneider (Cécile De France), a bespectacled bar-girl who seems to share his rebellious streak, and they quickly embark on a “Bonnie & Clyde”-esque spree of robberies together, incurring the wrath of various rival mobs, and necessitating a cross-Atlantic flight to Canada. There they get mixed up with the Quebec Liberation Front, and attempt to kidnap a wheelchair-bound millionaire to raise funds for the cause… but when they leave him unattended to collect the ransom money, he manages to drag himself to safety, and alert the authorities. Mesrine and Schneider go on the run, getting all the way down to Arizona before the cops finally catch up with them and spring a roadblock trap… at which point Schneider reaches for a concealed pistol, but Mesrine stops her, suggesting that they surrender… and that’s the last they ever see of each other. After Mesrine escapes from the hellish prison he was being held/tortured in, he contacts Schneider via his attorney and cheerfully informs her that he’s coming to bust her out too, but she tearfully begs him not to, claiming that her sentence is almost up and she doesn’t want him to die in the attempt. According to the “where are they now” blurb at the end of the film, Schneider returned to France after her release, and presumably stayed on the straight and narrow.
Spooky fact: Anaya and De France share the exact same birthday, July 17th 1975… though I doubt that was factor in their both being cast here.
* Actually Sylvie Jeanjacquot, played by Ludivine Sagnier, who I’ll have more to say about in the second part…