Jean-François Richet's French gangster biopic is the movie that PUBLIC ENEMIES should've been: part character study, part thriller, part prison break-out movie. It's well-directed, emotionally and intellectually satisfying and superbly acted. It evokes a sense of time and place and involves the audience without glamourising the subject matter.
Richet splits his biopic into two parts, in the manner of Steven Soderbergh's recent biopic of Che Guevara. The movies are self-contained but as soon as I watched one I was desperate to see the other, and they work best as a whole.
Part One opens as a tense thriller - a plump, middle-aged Jacques Mesrine (an award-winning performance from Vincent Cassel) and an enigmatic woman (Chloe Sevigny) are ambushed by the police in late 1970s Paris. The movie then switches to a more youthful Mesrine, witnessing horrific interrogations as a soldier in the Franco-Algerian war - the start of his brutalisation perhaps? After the war, he rejects a bourgeois life and joins his childhood friend working for local mob boss (Gerard Depardieu). Mesrine is smarter than the average thug, more charming, and more honourable. Cassel has us believing that he does want to make good for the sake of his kid, but ultimately, he can't keep straight, and abandons his family for a life on the run in Canada with a similarly inventive, ruthless crim. played by an unrecognisable and ruthless Cecile de France.
The resulting movie is gripping, emotionally affecting, and impartial without being indifferent. Cassel is deeply impressive - but so are Depardieu and de France. The period and mood are brilliantly evoked - style serves content. This film is, simply put, a new gangster classic.
MESRINE PART ONE won three Cesars,for Best Actor, Best Sound and Best Director. MESRINE: PART ONE played Toronto 2008 and opened last year in Belgium, France, Russia, Hungary, Estonia, the Czech Republic and Croatia. It opened earlier this year in Poland, the Netherlands, Israel, Italy, Turkey, Norway, Germany, Denmark, Greece and Brazil. It opens in the UK and US on August 7th.