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L’ennemi Public n°1 (Mesrine : Public Enemy No.1)

August 31, 2009

When we left Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) at the end of L’instinct de Mort, he had worn out most of his criminal accomplices and was heading off on his own. At the start of L’ennemi Public n°1 he is – with typical swagger – updating a legal bureaucrat on his story, in preparation for an extended stretch in clink. This, hand-holding haters might grumble, would be to help get people quickly up to speed, but then the concept of being lead carefully back through a reprise of saucy Jacques’s greatest hits seems to be put to rest as we are thrown almost immediately back into the action.

After a couple of audacious bank heists he is back in court and playing the boisterous Braggadocio. In the middle of his boasting he takes the judge hostage, right under the noses of all his accusers, and flees. A mater of weeks later a further arrest sees him arrested again and sent to the infamous La Santé jail, where he writes his brash atrocity-filled autobiography, to the horror of his lawyer. Inevitably, another escape is instigated and he returns to criminal ways with the kidnapping of a millionaire (Henri Lelièvre, played with lugubrious brilliance by the venerable Georges Wilson).

Unsurprisingly, he is termed Public Enemy No.1, and unsurprisingly he adores the title, even if it must clearly accelerate us towards the ending we have all already seen during the opening titles of L’instinct de Mort.

L’ennemi Public n°1 suffers for a while in the attempt to get going. It seems unsure as to whether it should help the audience, or just get going, and consequently stutters, producing an uncertain lack of impetus. After a half hour or so it finds its feet, entirely thanks, as you might expect, from the power of Cassel’s performance. He has no problem picking up the strands of the story and manages also to add further layers to Mesrine’s wildly unwieldy character. He’s fiery, reckless, filled with bravura and self-belief, but what Cassel brings to the table is a deep confusion which Jacques is desperate to cover up by any means necessary including tying his colours to the masts of political causes of several different hues.

We also have moments where Mesrine seems genuinely touched by the presence of his grown daughter, and Cassel shows just what a terrific talent he is by softening his monstrous creation just enough to show that there’s a human behind the eyes.

Ennemi is a longer and more violent film than Instinct, and suffers to some degree because of this; tied in with that bumpy beginning, it is a less satisfactory partner, but when the bar was set so high to begin with that’s not too bad a comparison. Ultimately, these are two parts of a very impressive whole, and they should be seen as close to one another as possible. Mesrine, for those that worry about such things, does not come across as someone to be lauded, but Cassel deserves all the praise that might flow his way; he is simply wonderful.

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