This is the true story of Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassell), pronounced May-reen, who was declared the French public enemy number one during his reign of terror, circa 1961-1979. Because so much happened during his life the filmmakers wisely divided the story into two parts, although they were shot concurrently over a 33-week period starting on May 7, 2007. This is the first half, which covers his life from 1959-1973.
In this incredibly violent film, Mesrine is pictured as a charming man who wore many faces; a ladies’ man, a bank robber, a doting father, an escape artist, an extremely violent man, and, finally, a manipulator of the media.
Director Jean-François Richet didn’t structure it to respect the codes of a certain genre, like making it a gangster film. He says he made it about how best to serve the character, and it includes action, humor, and romance. He also said he wouldn’t have made the movie if Cassell wasn’t cast as Mesrine.
Mesrine’s wife, Sofia, is played by Spanish actress Elena Anaya, a beauty if ever there was one. One of the most shocking scenes in the movie is the way she is treated by Mesrine when she is the mother of their three children. It sets the standard for his character. While she might be relatively unknown, she stands out in what is a remarkable cast. Says Richet himself, “Elena is surely one of the film’s revelations.” That’s for sure. The main thing I remember when I think about the film is her and how Mesrine treated her.
But the violence against Sofia is nothing compared to what we see when he stabs one of his opponents. We see him slowly insert the knife, pull it out, and insert it again. In another scene we see a bullet being graphically removed from Mesrine’s arm. Richet certainly doesn’t take a back seat to Quentin Tarantino when it comes to sensationalizing graphic violence. I think it’s unnecessary when Tarantino does it and I think it’s unnecessary here, although it does serve to show that in spite of his charm and charisma, Mesrine was a sociopath.
In addition to Cassell, Richet says, “I was lucky to have the cream of French cinema with me – Gérard Depardieu, Gérard Lanvin, Mathieu Amalric, Ludivine Sagnier, Cécile de France, Gilles Lellouche, Samuel Le Bihan, Olivier Gourmet, Florence Thomassin, and others. We were like a small theater company.”
De France was cast in the pivotal role of Jeanne Schneider, his alter ego and accomplice for most of the film. She brilliantly portrays the prostitute who knows the moment she first sees him that he is her destiny.
Despite the graphic violence, Cassell creates a memorable character, perhaps as memorable as the real man he portrays. If one doesn’t remember, or never knew about, Mesrine, one might think that the facts have been stretched. Says Richet, “The facts are so novelistic there was practically no need to invent. (Mesrine) is a movie character.”