Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Fri Feb 20, 2009 4:43 pm 
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"The Legend"/"Public Enemy No. 1": the self-destructive exploitation of the image

Part 2 is more episodic, but it has several unifying elements: the relationships with a notable accomplice, the quiet, secretive, but equally bold Francois Besse (Matthieu Amalric); with his last and perhaps most romantic girlfriend, Sylvie Jeanjacquot (Ludivine Sagier); and, after a special "anti-Mesrine cell" has been created just to track him down, with the police manhunt that ends his life. Their code name for him is simply "le grand," the Big One. Above all the film now has an overriding focus on Mesrine's growing public identity, which he consciously shapes. This grows out of the energetic theatricality of Vincent Cassel's performance. There are various scenes of Mesrine "performing" in a police station (where Part Two begins); for journalists of high-circulation weeklies; in court; robbing banks; and for the world at large. If there was once a discernible difference between his public and private life, it has disappeared now that he's assumed arch-gangster status. Cassel literally takes on volume, having put on 45 pounds for this part of the role. His character is solid, confident, and aware of his public image at all times, and with his inflated self-importance, he redefines himself as some kind of savior of the common man from the tyranny of the banks and the bourgeoisie. Various more sophisticated thinkers try to explain to him that the banks aren't the problem, and that robbing them doesn't alter the system and perhaps reinforces its importance.

As Part 2 begins, the now notorious gangster has made his way back to France. Spectacularly, Mesrine and another accomplice escape by holding up a Compiègne courtroom where he's about to be put on trial, taking the judge hostage on the way out. This segment is told in flashback: the gangster is telling his story to the cops after getting caught. He is subsequently furious to learn that the dictator Pinochet has seized page one of the newspapers by being apprehended, and pushed him out. He immediately demands a typewriter and begins to write his first autobiography, L'Instinct de mort (Death Instinct) to gain more attention.

But we also see Mesrine concealing his now more prominent public identity by assuming a series of disguises. He dresses up as a doctor to visit his dying father in a hospital and say goodbye. ("Why are you here?" his dad asks. "Well," answers Jacky, "all the banks were closed. . .") He not only gives Paris Match an important interview, but (in a sequence of excessive violence) tracks down, tortures and murders right-wing journalist Jacques Dallier (Alain Fromager), who enraged Mesrine by having written a piece for the journal Minute calling him a "dishonorable crook" and claiming he has "betrayed" his associates. And we see Mesrine operating through the medium of his attorney (Anne Consigny, of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and A Christmas Tale), who risks her career by helping him get pistols for yet another of his escapes--one that includes fording a river and passing a police roadblock in a farmer's Peugeot.

This time, he escapes with the reserved, suspicious François Besse (Matthieu Amalric), who, like him, has already escaped from prisons three times before and is treated as a celebrity by prison guards. Besse is a sharp contrast to the flamboyant Mesrine and thinks him foolish and mad, though like everyone else, he respects his courage and audacity. The two men rob the Deauville gambling casino's coffers, posing as inspectors to get in. But before that at Mesrine's instigation they pose as Paris cops checking on the local police headquarter's duty roster, to find out when the station is least well-manned. Besse is uneasy about such bold maneuvers, but even more, questions Mesrine's talking to Paris-Match and claiming he's a revolutionary. But it's the late Seventies, the time of the Aldo Moro kidnapping in Rome.

After hearing about the Red Brigades and the Badder Meinhof, Mesrine tells Besse he wants to attack maximum security prisons, in the same way that he went back and attacked the Guantanamo-like Special Corrections Unit in Quebec. The film tells us the SCU's malpractices were ended as a result of Mesrine's exposure of them after his escape. Meanwhile, he persuades Besse to help him kidnap Henri Lelièvre (Georges Wilson), a millionaire Paris slumlord, for ransom, telling the slumlord he represents the PLO. This is another exploit that doesn't go as planned, but leads to a bold escape.

For a while Mesrine connects with Charles Bauer (Gérard Lanvin), an out-and-out radical, and it's with him that he traps and snuffs the right-wing journalist. Bauer in particular debunks Mesrine's claims of being a revolutionary.

The two-film diptych is bookended with the final police shootout in Paris traffic at the Place de Clignancourt that kills Mesrine with Sylvie Jeanjacquot and her little dog at his side, after he has used the slumlord's money to buy her a lot of diamond jewelry and himself a luxury model brown BMW. This is a convention of the genre--the bookending with a final showdown--but the way it's expanded in the finale of Part Two shows both films' fine sense of detail. Olivier Gourmet, among so many others, excels as Commissioner Broussard, head of the anti-Mesrine unit whose operatives are so terrified when the short, now overweight Mesrine walks by where they're hiding.

L'ennemi public nº 1 had a November 19, 2008 theatrical release in France. It is part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center, March 2009.

At the February 28, 2009 French Césars awards ceremony Vincent Cassel received the Best Actor prize for 2008 for his performance as Mesrine in both Parts 1 and 2.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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