[Contains chip-strap beards and SPOILERS!!!]
The first part of Mesrine (2008), “Killer Instinct”, began with a disorienting split-screen sequence depicting the final moments of the infamous French gangster’s life, as he attempted to flee the city with his young girlfriend Sylvie Jeanjacquot (Ludivine Sagnier), only to find himself ambushed by a police firing squad, hiding in the back of a truck. The second part, “Public Enemy Number 1” (aka “Mesrine: L’ennemi public No. 1”), opens with the aftermath of this assault, as the protagonist’s bloody corpse is removed from his bullet-ridden car, and carried off to a waiting ambulance, as crowds of morbid rubber-neckers and journalists press forward for a peek. Because I was unfamiliar with the historical facts of the case, the apparent absence of Jeanjacquot in this scene left me wondering what had happened to her (whether she’d escaped or become “collateral damage”), and I had to wait over two hours for the answer…
The next time we see her, around the one hour mark, is the moment that Mesrine first lays eyes on her: a gorgeous young woman in a stylish black dress and sunglasses, strutting into the bar where she works as a waitress. He follows her in (disguised as a bald-headed postal worker), treats her to a bottle of champagne, and somehow sweet-talks her into having sweaty, energetic sex with him in the very next scene! After that, she’s a permanent fixture in Mesrine’s life, enjoying his ill-gotten gains and suffering his occasional mood-swings as a loyal, loving moll… until that fateful date with the hit-squad at a traffic intersection, where Mesrine is executed with extreme prejudice, and she is injured and then arrested, while screaming hysterically about her pet dog.
According to an online essay I found that attempts to debunk some of the dramatic licence taken in these films, “Sylvia Jeanjacquot lost one eye and suffered lasting damage to her arm… she was held in preventive detention for two years before she was released without any charges being pressed against her.” The site also takes issue with the way that she’s depicted here: “Jeanjacquot was transformed into a scatterbrained flirt… a televised interview broadcast on April 15, 1988, however, shows us a person of great dignity, and you only have to read her book L’Instinct de vie to confirm this impression.” Sadly, her memoir has only been published in French to date, so even if I wanted to read it, I couldn’t. Curse my unilingual ignorance! In an interview about the film, Sagnier observed: “I read her biography many times and I believe she was sincerely attracted to Mesrine, not to the jewellery. She loved the life it could offer her but she was not taking advantage of the situation… He was a very virile man, a magnet. So destructive yet, in another way, a woman-lover. He was sensitive still. It’s a life I could never choose. But I also found it exciting to be a gangster’s moll. It’s a sort of fantasy for women.” M’kay.
The only other significant female characters in this part were Mesrine’s teenage daughter, who appears in a couple of scenes played by Fanny Sidney (giving a great performance, despite the scant dialogue she has to work with), and Mesrine’s “avocate”, played by Anne Consigny. Note: Although she’s shown providing her client with working guns shortly before a prison-break, according to the essay linked above, his actual lawyer was suspected of aiding him in this manner, but eventually cleared of all charges.
Summation: Although my usual complaints about biopics still stand, there’s no doubt that Vincent Cassel did incredible work here in the lead role, and came across as an incredibly energetic and committed actor in the “making of” featurettes… I also have to say that Jean-François Richet’s direction was very impressive and ambitious, with more than enough moments of dazzling cinematic brilliance to make up for the inevitably disjointed and holey narrative. I particularly liked the way that the opening scene of the first part was replayed in the second part from the perspective of the hidden policemen, to provide us with a whole new angle on events we’d already seen, but needed to sit through again in the lead up to the finale (which also teases out the reveal of the hit-squad, for extra suspense).