Whose Robin Hood?

Submitted by Newcastle on 10 September, 2009 - 11:28 Author: Darren Bedford reviews Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1

Mesrine is slick. Very slick. The film looks great, and successfully evokes its time and place (France in the late 1970s). Vincent Cassell brings his inimitable and indefinable cool — which is as off-kilter as his almost impossibly crooked nose — to the title role and make the character jump off the screen.

There’s a good balance of action and non-action scenes and the script is engaging. It’s a good film. Go and watch it. But you probably want a bit more from this review, particularly given that it’s in a revolutionary socialist newspaper. So here goes...

This is the second instalment of two films that chronicle the life of Jacques Mesrine, France’s most famous bank robber, who was basically really, really good at shooting people and nicking stuff. This film focuses on his exploits in the late 70s exploits, when he was arrested and imprisoned (and then escaped) three times. Because of his experiences in the brutal and soul-destroying high-security facilities he is sent to, Mesrine appears to develop strong ideological opposition to the French state and its prison system in particular, and we soon find him colluding with the “far left” of the criminal fraternity (people who aspire to a French version of the German and Italian “Red Brigades”) to “smash the system”.

Mesrine has several speeches in which he claims his crimes are victimless — he only robs “exploiters” — and in which he paints himself as a latter day Robin Hood. The film’s central question, if it has one, is whether the stance was a wily PR job on Mesrine’s part or whether it had any sincerity.

Mesrine is critiqued by his “comrades” for his opulent lifestyle and love of material goods — “you don’t threaten capital, you flatter it” he is told. His more pragmatic partner, Francois Besse, tries to convince him that the role of criminals is to feed off the system, not overthrow it. When we see Mesrine at his most passionate, dealing with his press coverage and public image (the “Public Enemy No. 1” label was apparently an immense source of pride for him), it’s pretty clear that image and perception was everything and that his appropriation of the language and style of the Red Army Brigade was merely the work of a clever publicist utilising the shocking romance and dark glamour that such groups possessed at the time.

That’s the problem. The actual politics involved are a poisonous mixture of terroristic, Third-Worldist Stalinism and an inchoate middle-class hostility to the western working class. They are is sadly alive (if not well) today in the politics of groups like the Revolutionary Communist Group (Fight Racism, Fight Imperialism). And as the politics are never really discussed, the film’s casual tossing around of terms like “far left” are a bit frustrating.

But only a bit; after all, the film never sets out to explore in any detail the ideas of the 1970s French left. What is more deeply disconcerting is the fact that, despite the film’s attempts to convince us that the Robin Hood act was a posture, you can’t help liking Mesrine, even though he’s patently a self-interested, brutal criminal whose actual politics were probably incredibly right-wing. (He served in the French army of colonial occupation in Algeria, at one point attempting to replicate its notoriously brutal methods on a journalist he’s in the process of murdering for giving him negative press coverage. It’s also alleged that he colluded with the French fascist paramilitaries, the OAS — a relationship apparently dealt with in the first film, Mesrine: Killer Instinct).

If you were inclined to give the film the benefit of the doubt, you’d conclude that Mesrine’s on-screen likeability is a comment on the ease with which people can be taken in by the PR work of utterly odious individuals. If you were inclined to be cynical, however, you might think that the film whitewashed Mesrine in order to not force paying audiences to spend two hours watching the exploits of a complete and utter shit.

Go see the film and draw your own conclusions. Just don’t let it give you any ideas; robbing a bank is not a revolutionary act.

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