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Jacques Mesrine: Robin des bois français ou gangster sans scrupule?
Twenty-nine years after his death, France’s former public enemy number one made a comeback on Wednesday 22nd October in a movie directed by Jean-François Richet. “Mesrine: Death Instinct”, is the first film of a two-part biopic devoted to Jacques
Mesrine, the charismatic career criminal who became a household name in France. Starring Vincent Cassel as the famous gangster, and Gérard Depardieu as his mentor, the film is acclaimed by every critic. “A brilliant exercise of style”, affirms Le Monde. Or even, “A powerful political attack on religion” says the arts magazine Les Inrockuptibles.
However, it was a little risky to devote a film to this Parisian criminal. It’s not easy to tell the story of a man like Jacques Mesrine. Before the film’s release, many people expressed their worries; they were afraid the film would glorify the gangster. In fact, should Mesrine be depicted as a hero or as the devil? Tricky question when one knows that the gangster’s character has been polarised beyond all recognition.
“One half of the population saw him as a killer; the other half saw him as Robin Hood,” told Jean-François Richet. In fact, Mesrine’s story was so much out of the ordinary that it was enough to elevate him to the status of legend.
The son of a businessman, Mesrine committed his first burglaries at the age of 23. Hold-ups, kidnappings, and armed attack soon followed – the list is long and epic. Especially if you add his many escapes from prison, including one from La Santé, France’s most high-security prison. His death under a rain of bullets from a special police force in the heart of Paris, at the end of October 1979, only contributed to his legend.
So, is Mesrine worthy of interest? He’s the perfect movie character, similarly to Scarface or Bonnie’s Clyde. In addition, the French gangster was often regarded as a kind of revolutionary hero, who tried to disturb the established order by stealing from rich people and threatening the bourgeois society. In his autobiography, published in 1977, Jacques Mesrine told how he embarked on an “ideological criminality string” and explained his choice to escape a “sad face life”, sentenced to “a badly paid job”
and “perpetual mediocrity” of the “slave of his alarm clock”. He had a conception of crime as an insurrection, a will to lead an urban guerrilla. For that reason, he was often portrayed as the perfect symbol of liberty, the Robin Hood of modern times.
One cannot forget however that Jacques Mesrine was a violent criminal. Brutal, he did not hesitate to fire on anything that moved, he tortured a journalist, and probably killed other people. He was never convicted for murder, but he confessed one murder in his autobiography, and boasted one day of having killed more than thirty people.
In fact, Mesrine was many personalities in one. Political opportunist, dangerous psychopath, romantic righter of wrongs, bad husband, good father… It would be difficult to choose. And Jean-Claude Richet did not try. The director did not want to portray Jacques Mesrine as a monster or as a modern Robin Hood. “He was neither”, said Richet, “We wanted to portray the grey areas of Mesrine.” While refusing to glorify the violence, Richet said he wanted the film to pick up on the softer side of Mesrine’s character, in particular his wit and his “sense of honour”.
This partial rehabilitation was not welcomed by everyone, especially by those who remember the lurid headlines of Mesrine’s life and who think he only deserves a negative image. However his family, who has always claimed Mesrine’s killing in a police ambush was little short of a state-sanctioned assassination, has welcomed the portrayal. His son, Bruno Mesrine, told: “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.” But who says gangsters don't love kids? It doesn't mean they cannot be extremely violent as well.
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. So, an anti-establishment icon or just a shameless gangster? You’ll have to decide for yourself.
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