Mesrine: Killer Instinct is the first of two films that depict the violent rise (and I’m assuming fall, having not yet seen the second) of the notorious French gangster Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel).
Mesrine is a violent, well-made film with an interestingly pieced together opening sequence and great performances. Some of the action scenes – particularly the prison break – are intense and really well conceived, with blocking reminiscent of Michael Mann’s best work.
Worth noting is also Eloi Painchaud’s score, which was fantastic and is actually his first. Pretty impressive stuff.
The opening sequence of Mesrine consists of a series of split screens and multi-screen frames. From various different concurrent angles we watch as an unidentified woman and Mesrine walk suspiciously about in disguise, apparently perform a robbery and drive off in their getaway car. Richet uses an odd technique here that I’ve seen before, but never to this extent. It feels French – Rififi, Le Cercle Rouge, etc. There’s something about the silent cool, the burning tension, and the menacing jazzy music underscoring what is sure to become violent that feels this way.
Back to the technique: Richet decides to repeat actions. For example, when the woman walks out from a doorway she puts her left hand to the strap of her bag on her right shoulder. Since this is a noticeable movement, it’s obvious when, in the split screen directly to the right, she doesn’t make this same action at the same time. Then, when a third frame comes in, showing her again walk out of this doorway, we watch as she again raises her left hand to her right shoulder – again, not in sync.
Richet’s entire opening sequence – woman walking out, Mesrine following, completion of job, getaway car – consists of usually at least three (in some cases as many as six) “panels” showing the same action, just slightly out of sync. Because this is very clearly a film that nods to Jean-Pierre Melville while desperately (and successfully) trying to maintain its sense of cool, much of this is style and a build of anticipation. It works. I’m forced to watch these small, and seemingly unimportant actions repeat ad-nauseum, when what I really want is for the split screens to end and to be able to see, in full view and in non-repeated action, what exactly is happening.
Furthermore, since this opening scene ends abruptly and is not followed up on in the first film, I am led to believe that it will come back into play in the second film. It’s therefore intentionally confusing and disorienting. It’s non-linear (a flash forward, most likely), involving a woman that I don’t even meet during the first film, and in a place we are of yet unfamiliar with. So the technique here – one not necessarily of confusion, but certainly one of deliberation and teasing, really matches what is going on on-screen.
Cassel gives a pretty great performance in here. He’s finally started to get some recognition post-Black Swan, but his filmography is impressively diverse (La Haine, Irreversible, Eastern Promises, to name a few of the better ones in there). His Jacques Mesrine can be carefree and boyish one moment, and icily brutal the next.
One element of filmmaking that I rarely talk about is production design, which is simply the overall look of the material elements (costuming aside) in the film – the person who creates the spaces and the world of the film. Emile Ghigo, who has worked with directors as notable as Bertrand Tavernier and Claude Chabrol, does an awesome job in Mesrine. The palette of many of the interiors is earthy with beautifully 1960s patterned textures. It’s all so cohesive while never calling attention to itself, though it fits right in.
One last note: it’s a mistake to compare this first film to a Godfather or Goodfellas, which are the go-to comparison points for any gangster film. While I love both of them, particularly The Godfather, Mesrine has a different feel altogether. If anything it’s closer to 2008’s Bronson in its unabashed style and charismatic, media-playing lead.