This second half of Jean-Francois Richert’s gangster epic is slightly more disjointed, but its arguments make for a richer film. Removed from the more straightforward narrative arc of Mesrine’s early career and his marriages (his first is skipped in the former film), Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 echoes the peripatetic nature of this thief’s occupation. The film feels like a string of narrow escapes and increasingly brazen (and, from the perspective of 2010, pretty damn insane) robberies. Practically every scene is conducted in broad daylight, almost as if they were deliberate provocations designed for maximum publicity. (It also helps that the police are also remarkably incompetent.)
Jacques Mesrine’s autobiography, penned in prison, is entitled L’Instinct Morte – the title of the first half of Richert’s film – and this fact perfectly sums up Mesrine’s self-awareness and canny ability to understand his rapt audience, whether the press or the public, and give them what they want. It’s a knowledge sourced from personal experience – not just from the tabloid swirl around him, but from the women who swoon at his feet with little hesitation, despite his expanding belly. But this cult of celebrity, just as in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, isn’t very well explored in Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 (L’ennemi public n°1). We get a scene in a courtroom where a grandstanding Mesrine entertains an audience, to the humiliation of the judges, but that’s about the extent of it. It raises the question of whether infamy – or at least the allure of illegality – can only, in the end, be enjoyed alone. It’s hard to bask in the light of adulation when you’re constantly running from the cops.
Even if the “public” may be mostly absent in the film, the people who make his celebrity possible – the media, in other words – are constantly in the background, sometimes engaging him directly for interviews. Mesrine knows he’s dependent on the media to feed his fame, and when he makes an uncharacteristic mistake – kidnapping a journalist purely out of revenge from a perceived insult – the media turns on him.
But what concerns Richert most in Public Enemy #1, despite the title, are Mesrine’s motivations, which become more overtly politicized, and are explored more deeply than in Killer Instinct. In the former film, Mesrine, extradited to Canada, arrives on the tarmac and says “Vive le Québec libre!” for the cameras. It’s a stray incident, but he falls in with members of the Front de libération du Québec while in prison, and in Public Enemy #1, Mesrine starts calling himself a “revolutionary” and talks of destroying “the system.” But does he really believe (or understand) it himself, or is he simply mimicking the discourse, spread via the media, of the Baadar-Meinhof Gang, or the Italian Red Brigades?
Richert wisely leaves it up to the audience to decide, and it becomes the central question of the film. His crewmates – a twitchy Mathieu Amalric among them – are suspicious of Mesrine’s ethics. Even a billionaire he has held hostage for ransom scoffs, while sipping a glass of cognac: “We’re not really that different – we both like good things, and to get what we want, we have to steal from honest, hard-working men.” For all of Mesrine’s anti-statist bluster – “the banks are the robbers,” he exclaims, and not the other way around – he proceeds to enjoy the ill-gotten fruits of his labor through shopping sprees anyway.
Mesrine goes through several disguises throughout the course of the film – most memorably, as a bald seducer in a beret and an ugly denim jacket – and it’s illustrative, perhaps, of the instability of his political and moral identity. But Richert stacks the deck by the end – a small misstep in this otherwise excellent film – when he shows Mesrine, with straggly beard and mop of hair, looking like a bloody Jesus and ultimately crushed by the state.