Mesrine: Killer Instinct

Posted on: 19th August 2009  |

Director: Jean-Fran?ois Richet
Starring: VincentCassel, Cecile de France, ElenaAnaya, Gerard Depardieu
UK Release date: 7 August 2009
Certificate: 15 (113 mins)

Jacques Mesrine: murderer, thief, bigot, icon, hero? The portrayal of this most infamous of French gangsters is what, ultimately, will serve to set Mesrine: Killer Instinct apart from the raft of mediocrity that seems to occupy the gangster sub-genre these days. It may come as a surprise then, that the film’s portrayal of Jacques Mesrine is somewhat confused. It is in this, however, that the film claims the subtlety, neutrality, depth and intrigue that really capture the natural response to such a character, and as such, makes the film a success.

Killer Instinct (part one of two – the sequel will follow at the end of the month) begins with an insight along these lines, displaying to the audience in print that no life can ever be captured on film. This, in itself, is something worth thinking about: it is not often that a film so readily draws attention to its limitations. With this in mind, the film presents a conflicted portrayal of Jacques Mesrine that, as much as is possible, accurately reflects the human perceptions of such a character. Awe is mixed with revolt, envy with disdain, admiration with pity, all the while within a degree of obsession. Killer Instinct plays with these feelings in its audience from scene to scene, as if it seeks to unsettle the audience in their reaction to the character. In one scene, for example, Mesrine (played by the commanding Vincent Cassel) assures his wife, Sofia (Elena Anaya), that he will renounce violence and crime for the good of his family; not five scenes later, however, he is jamming his gun down Sofia’s throat and telling her that he will always choose his ‘friends’ over her and their children.

His motivations for such a change (as for his chosen way of life) are unclear. Director Jean-François Richet leaves much open to interpretation. A very early scene shows a young uniformed Mesrine partaking in the torture of Algerian activists during the Algerian war. With a gun thrust into his hand and the order to shoot the female activist barked into his ear, he struggles visually with something. What he is struggling with, however, the audience is not party to. In any case, the situation is resolved when Mesrine turns his gun on one of the male captors and shoots, without any apparent difficulty. This scene sets the tone for the rest of the film.

Richet’s portrayal of Mesrine is founded upon mystery: why does he act the way he does? What moral code does he live by? Because he certainly does have a moral code – one so strong that, I suspect, it had a large part to play in his motivations to react in the way he did against the establishment and all it stood for. After the incident of his refusal to shoot a woman, we also see his disbelieving outrage when a rival gang shoot at him while he is walking with his young daughter; he is astonished at their disdain for his rules of honour. Furthermore, he reprimands his partner and father-figure Guido (Gerard Depardieu) for shooting an unarmed man, telling him it is wrong. However, Guido makes a quick reposte that stuns Mesrine and echoes the audience’s confusions, asking him then if it is ok to put a gun in his wife’s mouth. This is a key moment, one of the pivotal points in the film where the characters directly confront an underlying but significant theme. It is the only time where Mesrine seems stuck for words; all that this charming and silver-tongued warrior can muster is a spluttered, ‘That is different’. Mesrine’s morality is a mystery, it is clearly divorced from society’s ‘normal’ perceptions of morality, but just like those ‘norms’ it has its admirable convictions and its glaring holes.

Richet’s Mesrine is something of an enigma, but an enigma that feels very real. Cassel’s performance is memorable. He succeeds in the very difficult task of portraying a real person as sufficiently complex and inherently flawed, as both endearing and disturbing, charming and frightening. Cassel is backed up by a very good supporting cast, most notably Depardieu as Guido and Cecile de France as Mesrine’s love and accomplice Jeanne, who, although with feet planted slightly closer to the ground, seems to share Mesrine’s way of thinking as much as anyone could.

Mesrine: Killer Instinct is an exciting, intriguing and meaningful film about the life of a man who cannot really be understood by those of us who don’t live completely by our own rules. This mystery can lead to a type of veneration and obsession that labels people ‘legends’ and ‘icons’. So alluring is Mesrine’s independence and confidence in his defiance of what he sees as society’s wrongdoing, that the audience must be careful not to overlook his disdain for the lives of others as they are impressed by his courage. Richet reveals something valuable about us, and about characters like Mesrine, who many have revered as heroes in spite of their wrongs. How is it that we can so readily identify with a character like Mesrine? I do not think it is just because there is a part of us that agrees with his frustration and complete disregard for the establishment, but also because there is a part in many of us that longs to have his courage and flair to act upon that disregard. Now that is frightening.

Aaron Kilkenny-Fletcher

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