Six Damn Fine Degrees #34: Jacques Mesrine

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

If Goodfellas is about the glitz, and Donnie Brasco is about the grind, the Mesrine dyptich consisting of L’Instinct de Mort and L’Ennemi Public No1 illuminates the cruelty inherent in a life of crime. Jacques Mesrine is a hard man. Not in the more stylized De Palma vein but as the real deal. Often racist, sometimes misogynistic, and extremely violent. The political incorrectness is not inadvertent, nor is it glamourized. It is simply symptomatic of a type who does not give a shit about anything at all. Not about people’s lost or ruined lives, either directly through his actions, or by their consequences. He wants what he feels he is owed, no matter the cost. Though certainly clever, articulate, intermittently charismatic and even charming – he has his moments –, Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) is a man of such staggering volatility and entitlement that he makes Tony Montana look like a parody.

The first film starts in stylized split-screen, referencing elegant crime films such as The Thomas Crown Affair, as a nod to the era in which the movie takes place. It soon takes a turn for the nasty, however, with Mesrine’s government-mandated assassination. In 1979, shocking images of his remains were splashed across front-pages showing this ‘Public Enemy No 1’ shot to pieces. Modern audiences, who may not know the historical figure, will be clued in immediately that in this period in history it was not just Mesrine who was party to excessive violence. The film then goes back in time, straight into another national trauma: the Algerian war, in which Mesrine allegedly served in the torture squads. Though the film doesn’t delve into the effect the war had on Mesrine (“I don’t like to talk about it”, he says to a friend), it is intimated that his criminal character was honed in the horrors of that war and its aftermath.

Feet thus firmly planted in a life’s story of ubiquitous violence, the film continues at a cracking pace detailing Mesrine’s storied criminal career. Being a volatile, entitled and adventurous character has its on-screen advantages. Mesrine was famous for bank robberies, sometimes two in one day, but maybe even more so for daring prison escapes and other stunts. It is part of what made Mesrine a darling of the media in his time and it is great fun to watch.

Mesrine, as a historical figure, certainly could not invoke a background of deprivation to rationalize his many crimes. He was born into the middle class and returned from the war a decorated veteran. He led a life of crime more or less by choice. For easy money, according to Mesrine. “Of course, for the money. I don’t want to dream at life. Though I like adventure too, I like risk.” And probably also because he never much cared for the law anyway. Though he himself has said that politics is nothing but devilry, he was associated with extremist organisations throughout his life. He was allegedly affiliated with the extreme right-wing OAS (Organisation Armée Secrète) in ’62, a dissident paramilitary organisation which brutally attacked any effort at Algerian independence, both at home and abroad. Later in life, however, he also became close to the leftist Charlie Bauer, revolutionary campaigner for prisoner’s rights, who was also a technical advisor to this film.

In a real-life interview for Paris Match*, referenced in the second film, he is brash despite being on the run. He is not afraid of death, he insists, and when asked whether he will surrender, should the police come to retrieve the famous fugitive, he raves: “I will never surrender. It is war now. The police must know they will never take me back [to prison], I will fire regardless of whether innocents will unfortunately end up in front of my bullets. I will not be the one who starts the shooting, but I will leave a few bodies behind.” But also later in the same interview: “I am not at any risk of growing old. (laughs) I know very well that it will end badly. I know very well that I am going to die, that I will be shot, tomorrow, in two weeks, in a year or in eight months if I am lucky. I don’t care. I know that in the end, they will be able to get me.” The interview was published a year before he was cut down, in full glare of the media he had courted throughout his career.

Papers like Paris Match loved his anti-establishment bravoura. And Mesrine loved to clown around for the press. For all his sins, he was also, doubtlessly, courageous and staunchly loyal to his supporters. Eventually he became a slightly ridiculous figure tilting at windmills too visibly; despite his taunts he perhaps underestimated the depths to which the decaying government would stoop. But despite his brutality he was clearly perceived as a kind of anti-establishment folk hero, about whom seemingly everyone had a great story to share. Perhaps this explains why he is still seen as a role model in some quarters even now, when riots and fights with armed police are still a daily occurrence in France and elsewhere.

In 1973 Mesrine was arrested to serve 20 years at the La Santé maximum security prison, from which he would eventually escape. There, he wrote his autobiography: L’Instinct de Mort, on which both films are based. Though I have not read the book, it is hard to imagine it portrays him quite so unflinchingly as the films do. But then, that is exactly where their power lies. It never quite allows the audience to forget exactly what kind of a man we are dealing with.

It is the film’s candour which made the first film a hit with critics and audiences alike. Clearly ‘a hard man in a hard world’ is a message which is still enthusiastically welcomed, as series like Gomorrah attest. The anti-establishment antics which made him popular to the press in his own day, are no less compelling now. Simply put: Jean-François Richet’s ballsy portrayal of Mesrine in his true sociopathic colours, while also showing his allure, makes for a a fantastic crime film. The second film is slightly looser, and allows itself to have a little fun with the material, which arguably makes it a bit more indulgent, but no less gripping for all that.

Together they are meant to be a specific snippet of history. A chronicle of a particular time and place, through the eyes of a clever man who, despite having other options, consistently opted for a life of money, egotism, fame and violence. And while both films reward a bit of insight into the times, they are compulsively watchable for international audiences without the need for any context at all.

* The entire Paris Match interview can be found here.

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