France's public enemy number one makes biopic comeback

France's former public enemy number one, a charismatic bank robber, kidnapper and killer who first gained notoriety in Canada, made a comeback Wednesday in a critically-acclaimed biopic.


Thirty years after the death of French gangster Jacques Mesrine, director Jean-François Richet has made not just one but two films about the notorious gangster’s life. Vincent Cassel plays the legendary bandit, having put on 20 kilos for the role, and a plethora of actors like Ludivine Sagnier and Mathieu Amalric accompany him on the screen. The first part, “Mesrine, the instinct of death” comes out in 500 French cinemas on Wednesday October 22nd. The second, “Mesrine: public enemy n° 1”, comes out a month later, on November 19th.


Jacques Mesrine, “the man with a hundred faces”, is without a doubt the most famous French gangster. This son of a businessman committed his first burglaries at the age of 23. Hold-ups, kidnappings, armed attack – the gangster’s list is long and epic. 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.


The film begins briskly, with a striking scene set in wartime Algeria, in 1959. In an interview with Agence France Presse, Jean-François Richet admitted that this scene represents "the end of innocence" for Jacques Mesrine, in whom he sees "a kind of anarchist, an anti-establishment figure: the guy who doesn’t want to be stereotyped”. This year-end’s super production – 35 millions euros – showcases a violent character, crafty and ready to do anything to get what he wants.


The actor Vincent Cassel, who plays Mesrine, compares this two-part film to “two themes which complete each other”. The first tells the story of a young man who is trying to find himself; the second that of a man who knows where his choices in life take him. The actor summarises it as follows: “The first is a film noir. The second, on the other hand, is more of a psychological thriller, the paranoia of a guy who knows intuitively how it’s all going to end”.


The film has earned a warm welcome from the French press. “Coherence, rigour and rhythm,” writes the magazine Première; “a brilliant exercise in style”, affirms Le Monde. Or even, “A powerful political attack on religion”, says the arts magazine les Inrockuptibles.


For the film’s opening, photographer Alain Bizos, who knew Mesrine well, is showing a series of photographs taken in private, the year of his death. He reveals the crook to be a character more than capable of humour and quite far from his image of public enemy n°1. For Bizos, these unique photographs re-establish the truth about the character. As for the film, he believes it’s off the mark: “they make him out to be a right idiot, you don’t feel the brilliant, smart and intelligent guy that he was”. Still, the Cahiers du Cinéma talk of a “man moved by a conquering virility (…) a belief restored in the full powers of incarnation”. Will the French people have enough appetite for a work in two parts?


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