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L’instinct de mort (Mesrine : Killer Instinct)

August 10, 2009

It’s been thirty years but I can remember, just about I think, the news story; famous French gangster shot to death in busy Paris street. To invade the consciousness of a hormonally distracted 15-year-old English school kid, you had to be famous, right?

Well, that’s what Jacques Mesrine was. A fifteen year crime spree, resulting in him being very much Public Enemy No.1, Mesrine flew around the world, taunting the police with his many disguises and bizarrely extravagant criminal posturing.

Perfect fodder for the villain as lovable rogue thang, you may think, and so it proves with French director Jean-François Richet turning the audacious and violent adventures into something of a romp with L’instinct de mort (Mesrine: Killer Instinct), followed soon by L’ennemi public n°1 (Mesrine: Public Enemy No.1). The French, probably even more than the Americans, have a tendency to laude their desperadoes, imbuing them with a sense of rebellion and mystique, and Mesrine was at the very zenith of this process, even being considered – for hitting so many banks – as the Gallic Robin Hood, hitting big business for the sake of the little guy. Hmm. We may want to ignore his 40 or so murders possibly, before setting him on too high a pedestal, that and the fact that at one point in the telling of this tale he puts a gun in his wife’s mouth while being watched by his infant son.

Instinct starts with Mesrine’s bloody baptism in the army, killing tortured suspects in Algiers. On his return to France, he slips into criminal ways with old friends and is soon working within Paris’s neon nightmare underworld, for local kingpin, Guido (Gérard Depardieu), a corpulent and terrifying man who harbours undefined links to the rightwing OAS. Following a prison spell, Mesrine (a brilliant Vincent Cassel) decides to go straight. He has a wife and young child and a talent for architectural work, but the lure of the swift centime draws him back to his illegal ways and soon he is blagging his way around the casinos and bars, threatening all and sundry with his sawn-off, throwing francs around with nonchalance. After a near-fatal contretemps with one of Guido’s rivals, he is advised to take a hike to Canada (Montréal, of course), and it’s there that his reputation really begins to take off.

Kidnapping, capture, extradition, escapes and more heists up the ante quite considerably: it’s certainly a life lived on the edge, even if – the attempt to return to a high security prison he’s just escaped from and bust out the mates he left behind being a perfect example – it occasionally seems to have been thrown together with sheer optimism and not a great deal of planning. Choosing the wrong guy to kill, or allowing his captives to get away, doesn’t seem to have got in the way of Mesrine’s enthusiasm, and you can’t deny that the man (if that’s the way you roll) probably had a shit load of fun doing what he did.

By the end of Instinct, weary from the many deaths, gunshot wounds and heads being cracked, you may wonder what the human cost of all this is. Certainly, Mesrine is left alone to contemplate his fate, but essentially this is only half time. It’s the mid-70s, and the Public Enemy is about to head back home.

There are doubts then, to my mind, as to what L’instinct de mort is actually for. Is it a properly re-enacted biopic of a genuinely important figure, or a cinematic hagiography of a thug for some reason beloved by the media chatterers? I guess until the second part arrives we will have to suspend our opinions. But what we most definitely have here is a perfectly paced machine of a movie, with a brilliant tuned engine at its core. Cassel is utterly convincing in the central role and deserves all the ‘Formidable!’ plaudits you’ll see in the press. As in La Haine, he seems almost too good, beyond what might be expected of him, too subtle, too nuanced, too French. There is a quality of brash charm on display here that it wouldn’t be ridiculous to claim, no one else would be able to pull off. It’s a good job that he is in almost every scene, because he really is that wonderful to watch. Even with my cynical hat on, and not wanting to lionize a financially motivated killer (OK, OK), I have to confess he’s a complete joy to watch.

Bring on part 2…

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 20, 2009 11:10 am

    Yep it was great, wasn’t it – and to say so I don’t think weakens one’s condemnation of what a repellent self-serving thug Mesrine was. Can’t wait to see Part 2.

    Having a special interest (ahem) in Ludivine Sagnier ever since Water Drops on Burning Rocks, I spent half the film trying to work out which goddamn character she played. I knew it wasn’t Guido… Anyway, I then found an interview with her about the part she played (of Sylvie), and her real-life counterpart:

    Did you meet her?

    No, because she didn’t want to. She’s completely overwhelmed by this tragedy… and she wanted to be paid.

    She spent four years in prison and was quite badly injured in the assassination.

    She lost her eye, her arm and her poodle. The dog saved her.

    Ah bon.

  2. August 20, 2009 11:16 am


    So, I guess we will see a lot more of Ms Sagnier in Part 2, which is all to the good.

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