Tuesday, August 24, 2010

MESRINE, the Richet-Cassel, two-part, two-ticket, César winner opens at last

When TrustMovies first saw the film under consider here, the month was March of 2009, the event was the FSLC's annual Rendez-vous With French Cinema, and MESRINE (Parts One and Two) had just won César awards for both its star Vincent Cassel (below, center) and director Jean-François Richet (who co-wrote the films with Abdel Raouf Dafri).  TM wasn't bowled over by the movie (or movies) at that time -- it/they seemed alternately entertaining and overlong, interesting and cliched  -- but with 18 months between now and then, he's disposed to give the film(s) a little more of what we call "the benefit of the doubt."

Comparisons to our own Godfather series have been made, and while I was never overly enamored of those three films, either -- as usual when American filmmakers tackle the Mafia, they glamorize it, though The Godfather, Part Two rises above even that caveat -- other than the movies all being about criminals, Richet's film is not particularly comparable in any important way to Coppola's trio, except perhaps in its French/French-Canadian box-office take. In any case, here below is my slightly edited original assessment of Mesrine: Killer Instinct (part one) and Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 (part two) -- viewing theatrically the whole of which will set you back around $25. And don't expect, even at that price, 3-D.

MESRINE begins with a series of split-screen views of a couple of chary characters apparently on the run. These are accompanied by Marcus Trumpp's music, composed to ratchet up suspense. Ratchet it does. And then pushes, and pumps, and ratchets some more. By the time the sequence ends (see above, with what looks suspiciously like the climax of this entire four-hour movie), you may have realized, as did I, that instead of actually being suspenseful, this few minutes has succeeded only in working very hard to appear so. If you buy into the "suspense," however, then you'll probably buy the remainder of this super-violent, bloody, action-packed but sometimes tedious film. TrustMovies didn't buy, but he managed to rent (or maybe sublet) off and on, over the movie's very long running time.

Jacques Mesrine (according to this film, he pronounced his name May-reen, with a silent "s") was, by the end of his nearly 43-year life, Public Enemy Number One (the French subtitle of Part Two of the film) in both France and Canada, a feat he achieved after being a very nasty nuisance in Part One (subtitled, in the original French, The Instinct for Death). Richet's film catalogs his rise and rise in ways that, kindly put, are rather clichéd by now -- unless Mesrine is among the first gangster epics you will have seen. Do we really need to hear Edith Piaf regretting nothing inserted into the soundtrack toward the finale? Would we not groan aloud were Sinatra's My Way to find its way into, say, the concluson of The Godfather trilogy?

By the end of Part One, my biggest question was "Who the hell is this guy Mesrine?" He manages to "off" (in a particularly brutal sequence, below) a nasty thug/pimp who has beaten and disfigured Mesrine's ladyfriend/whore, whom our hero, in any case, has already dumped. Later, after proclaiming his ardent love, he beats and threatens his own wife with something similar. Is he perhaps bi-polar? His actions and words toward his father indicate a similar diagnosis.

For explanation, the movie nods toward Mesrine's service in the art of torture/murder as part of the French military during the Algerian War. Well, many Frenchmen were implicated in this without their becoming gang lords. Unfortunately the most interesting aspect of Mesrine's character lies either on the cutting room floor or in the blank space between Parts One and Part Two, the latter of which introduces us to a whole new guy -- a kind of Bonnie-and-Clyde-like folk hero, who still does a few too many very bad things. (In its way, the entire four-hour movie seems as bi-polar as its lead character.)

For all Cassel's manic negative energy on display, this is nothing we've not seen before -- and often: from Hate through Brotherhood of the Wolf, Birthday Girl, The Reckoning, Eastern Promises and particularly Sheitan (now there's a film in which this guy is really scary!). By the end of the movie, while we're left with another instance of Cassel doing his thing, we're barely a step or two closer to understanding M. Mesrine. So it goes with most of the other characters on display. Take Cécile De France, shown above, for instance. If you recall her from films such as A Secret, The Singer, Avenue Montaigne or Russian Dolls, you may have trouble even recognizing her here. She gives a great one-or-two-note performance without providing us with much character detail at all. First she's hard as nails, then -- boom -- she's soft and sad. It's mostly the same with the other characters: Given only a few scenes or moments, the actors make the most of them but can't begin to probe or bring much subtlety to the goings-on.

And so events typical of the film biography march, as if in lockstep, before our eyes: entry into the criminal life, adoption by the big boss, a killing here, a killing there, imprisonment (complete with nasty guards and cruel warden), the prison break (there's one in Part I and Part II, each handled well), troubles on the home front with the little woman, a later reconciliation with a child, and on and on. It's not that this is so poorly done (it's serviceable and sometimes more than that) but we've seen it all rather often over the years. And nothing here, save the violence, is given much weight. Pasting a real-life character onto these events (along with a starry cast including Mathieu Amalric (shown below, left, with Cassel), Gérard Depardieu, Canada's Roy Dupuis (above), Elena Anaya, Michel Duchaussoy, Ludivine Sagnier and others) makes the film a bit more interesting, perhaps (Mesrine's foray into the Front de libération du Québec is particularly so) but it does little for the overall arc of the story -- or its meaning and importance. I would guess that France found the film fascinating, since all but its younger generation or two lived through this and should remember it well. For some of us, however, it's mostly the usual blood-and-guts.

Note for completists: An earlier Mesrine film appeared 25 years ago, written and directed by André Génovès, and a French TV movie and documentary have popped up along the way. Though originally set to be released by a company called Senator Entertainment, for which I could at the time find no proper link and has since ceased doing business here in the States (its film division, at least), the two Mesrine movies have now been picked up for release by the smart Music Box Films, a company that has so far exhibited a canny regard for movies (the "Girl" trio) that may make some money in the art film/foreign film market.

Mesrine: Killer Instinct (Part One) opens this Friday, August 27, in a large-considering-it's-limited nationwide release.  Click here -- then scroll down for playdates, cities and theaters. Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 (Part Two) will open in similar fashion the following Friday, September 3.  Click here -- then scroll down for playdates, cities and theaters.  In the weeks following, Music Box promises that more locations will be announced. (That's the film's director,  Jean-François Richet, shown at left.)

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