October 31, 2008

Revolution in His Head: Public Enemy Number One (Part One and Part Two)

(Vincent Cassel accepts his Best Actor award via video at the Tokyo International Film Festival as a happy reporter gasps.)
A disclaimer precedes Public Enemy Number One Part One and Part Two, a film about real-life French bank robber Jacques Mesrine. The message is something along the lines of, "the following film is not an entirely accurate depiction of the man; it is a work of fiction. And what is 'real', anyway?" The films will be released one month apart from each other in cinemas, but having watched them back-to-back at the Tokyo International Film Festival, I grew to detest that little disclaimer.

For a film that goes out of its way to say that it isn't based entirely on real events, Public Enemy certainly tells its tale in slavish detail. Part One begins in the early 1960’s and follows Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) as he makes his entry into the criminal world. A hothead with a taste for brutality, he graduates from acolyte of Gerard Depardieu to big-time player turned criminal on the run, ostensibly hiding out in Montreal yet managing to cause mayhem. Part Two sees Mesrine back in his homeland, pulling off increasingly bold jobs and gradually growing cocky with the celebrity his criminal status brings him.

That the public's fascination with Mesrine remains almost thirty years after his death (established in the film’s first scenes) speaks volumes about this figure. Why, then, is his story told in such pedestrian form? With its swirling camera, rapid editing, swelling musical score, and unrelenting violence, director Jean-François Richet strives for bravura, but Public Enemy ends up derivative of greater gangster films and Hollywood thrillers. The narrative is willfully and tediously repetitive, and I lost count of the number of times Mesrine robs banks, kills someone, gets shot, lands in prison, and breaks out. From time to time, Richet inserts a famous French actor into the film (the mouthwatering supporting cast of Cécile De France, Ludivine Sagnier, Mathieu Amalric, Samuel Le Bihan, and the French-Canadian Roy Dupuis), throwing a bone to the frustrated viewer.

Cassel won Best Actor at the festival, with president of the jury Jon Voight placing his performance in the same breath with "some of the greatest performances of all time". As Mesrine, Cassel competently steers the character from a sharp upstart with mercurial mood swings to a paunchy middle-aged man who belatedly realizes his activities have brought him a sympathetic audience. But when Mesrine attempts to secure his legacy by aligning his actions with political ideologies, the film finds itself out of its depth. No matter how hard he insists that he is a revolutionary who is "exploiting the exploiters", the film only depicts him as a man who robbed, killed, and got killed.

According to this article, Senator Entertainment is toying with the idea of editing the two films into one for its American release. While heavy-duty studio intervention can be frequently disastrous for a film, in this case I can't help sympathizing with the studio. For audiences who have never heard of Mesrine, Public Enemy will leave them unable to comprehend why he was deemed worthy of a biopic. Besides, if this isn't really a true account of Jacques Mesrine's life, why should we have to sit through four hours of it?

No comments: