It’s too bad that Mesrine: Killer Instinct won’t screen in America as a double feature with its successor, Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1. Both films have a mosaic logic: Together, they cohere to form a multifaceted picture of infamous career criminal Jacques Mesrine. But if Killer Instinct is taken on its own terms, you can see how its scenes are like monochromatic mosaic tiles that rarely build directly on the emotional payoff of previous sequences. That disjointed structure preserves the contradictory mystery that surrounds Mesrine’s violent public history. While seeing the two films back to back certainly wouldn’t make Killer Instinct a less facile biopic of a real-life badman, it may overwhelm the viewer with the two films’ cocky affectation of complexity.
As each scene features a new representation of the titular antihero, Jacques Mesrine (a towering Vincent Cassel) is: a barbarous French soldier stationed in Algeria, an ungrateful son, a bank robber, a murderer, a seducer, a father of three, an honest day laborer, a prisoner, a man who beats and brutally humiliates his wife in front of his son, a torture victim, half of a Bonnie and Clyde-like duo of thieves, and above all, a man with a dangerous-looking mustache. There’s never a doubt as to who the real star of the film is, as everyone from Jeanne Schneider (Cécile de France), Mesrine’s female counterpart and mistress, to Guido (Gérard Depardieu), an established crook and—for a few scenes—a partner-in-crime, are treated as Jacques’s foils. It’s Mesrine’s world and everyone else is just living in it.
According to Killer Instinct’s preface, each of Mesrine’s splinter identities is compartmentalized and chronologically segregated from its predecessor for the sake of reflecting the multiplicity of voices that comprise the narrative. This approach might be more intriguing if it weren’t presented so overtly in split-screen frames and images of mirrors, or simply if it made Killer Instinct thoughtful instead of just knowingly one-sided. The fact that he abandons his children while he’s on the run may speak for itself, but the scene where Mesrine kisses his little girl on the cheek after he’s shot in the arm in a half-assed drive-by assassination attempt speaks a lot louder.
Even the scene where Mesrine beats his wife, forcing a gun into her mouth after she talks back to him in front of his buddies, is pretty toothless considering there’s no hint of his periodic schizophrenic transformation from a calm, suave guy to a homicidal lunatic within the scene itself. It’s just assumed that, because he protects a prostitute by stabbing her pimp and prematurely burying him in an earlier scene that the audience understands that he’s not really a white knight. But by segregating Mesrine’s life into varying mood swings, director/co-writer Jean-Francois Richet allows the viewer to pick whichever Mesrine he or she want to remember.
That canned ambiguity might have been excusable if Richet and co-writer Abdel Raouf Dafri didn’t consistently try to protect Mesrine’s Byronic character even within certain scenes. When the camera does linger on Cassel’s body language, it’s usually to showcase one of his electrifying leers or grimaces. Like the nondescript blue-collar worker who almost instantly hires Mesrine to do honest nine-to-five work in spite of Mesrine’s first conviction as a thief (“I can feel your honesty,” he intones gravely), we’re meant to be won over by Mesrine’s animal magnetism above all else. Scenes like—spoiler!—a brazen attempt to break some prisoners out of jail are accompanied with bombastic orchestral music that leaves no hint about the amorality of his actions. When Cassel’s pumping away at a bunch of prison guards who don’t have sexy mustaches, let alone any other humanizing qualities, with a very big gun, it’s supposed to be thrilling, just as Mesrine’s mantra of “freedom or death” is supposed to be romantic. Mesrine’s aura is only strengthened by Richet’s film, especially thanks to the dangling promise of a second installment. Cassel deserves better scenery to devour.