Saturday, May 16, 2009
Cinemust: Monster or hero? Biopic of French gangster leaves filmgoers to decide
He was known as France's public enemy No 1, a pathologically violent gangster who claimed to have killed 43 people and staged a jailbreak from every prison he was sent to. He was also "the man with 1,000 faces" who wore three wigs at the same time for easy disguises, and the "French Robin Hood" who waged a war against big business by holding up banks.
Since he was killed in a hail of police bullets in 1979, Jacques Mesrine has been elevated to the status of legend both by his detractors - to whom he was a monster - and his fans, to whom he was a misunderstood hero battling the establishment on behalf of the masses.
Now, for the first time since his death, France is trying to understand the reality of the criminal who divided society and drove police to distraction. The life of the Parisian super-criminal is to be retold in an epic two-part biopic, the first tranche of which opened in French cinemas yesterday to widespread critical acclaim and not a little controversy.
The aim of the double showing was to reveal the "light and shade" of a man whose character has been polarised beyond all recognition, according to the director, Jean-François Richet.
"For one half of the population he was a killer; for the other half he was Robin Hood," he told VSD magazine. "He was neither. We wanted to portray the grey areas of Mesrine."
Retracing the steps of the protagonist through his first ventures in the criminal underworld to his Bonnie and Clyde-esque escape to Canada with his lover, Mesrine: L'Instinct de mort is described as an unflinching depiction of a man at the edges of psychological stability. While refusing to glorify the violence, Richet said he wanted the film to pick up on the softer side to Mesrine's character, in particular his wit and "sense of honour".
That partial rehabilitation has raised eyebrows, however, among those who remember the lurid headlines of Mesrine's life.
A charismatic, immaculately dressed criminal who often carried out multiple bank robberies in the course of one day and who once held-up a casino days after escaping from France's most high-security prison, he was also allegedly involved in so many murders and near-murders that most believe he deserves his negative image.
But his family, who have always claimed Mesrine's eventual killing in a police ambush was little short of a state-sanctioned assassination, have welcomed the portrayal. His son, Bruno Mesrine, told Paris Match: "He was violent like any gangster can be, but that was only one of his character traits. In everyday life he was convivial. He loved kids, bouncing them on his knees."
Whatever the arguments surrounding its factual basis, the film has received almost unified praise as a work of art. Based on an autobiographical manuscript written by Mesrine from one of his many prison cells, it has been greeted by some critics as a French version of Al Pacino's gangster classic Scarface.
Vincent Cassel, the actor who rose to fame in La Haine, said he tried to play Mesrine in a way that would leave the audience free to make up their own minds. "He's still an enigma," he told Le Figaro newspaper. "So we tried to present a study of his character that doesn't force the public to choose one interpretation over another. Was he an anti-establishment icon? Or just a shameless gangster who got the ending he deserved?"
The second film of the biopic, entitled Mesrine: Ennemi public No 1, is due for French release on November 19.
Jacques Mesrine was famous for his jailbreaks. In 1969 he and his girlfriend broke out of a Quebec prison armed with a sharpened mug handle. During a second spell in a Montreal jail he cut the fence with pliers. In 1973 he was sent to France's highest-security jail, La Santé, from which no one had ever escaped. He held a trial judge at gunpoint to get away. In 1978, back in La Santé, he locked up his guards, stole their uniforms and climbed down a ladder out of a window.
Article by Guardian on Thursday 23 October 2008