Rumor has it that the film rights to the life story of Jacques Mesrine, France’s most notorious and popular tabloid criminal, were first offered to Jean-Luc Godard, shortly after the subject’s violent death in 1979. Godard supposedly didn’t want to make a film about Mesrine, but rather one about an actor who wanted to play Mesrine. In a typically Godardian flight of fancy he had envisaged Jean-Paul Belmondo sitting in a chair reading Mesrine’s autobiography out loud to the camera and . . . well, not much else. Belmondo, unsurprisingly, told him to forget it.
After 243 minutes of film, spread over two parts (Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1), the audience for Jean-François Richet’s much heralded and decorated 2008 movie (three Césars, including Best Actor and Director) could be forgiven for wondering wistfully how Godard’s version might have turned out. After an appearance at the San Francisco International Festival in April 2009, it struggles onto screens in New York and Los Angeles after a delay of two years, but this epic production, albeit competently directed and possessing a sense of grandeur, feels like a low point in contemporary French cinema, a Vichy-style surrender to the aesthetics and methodologies of Hollywood (brought to you by the guy who remade Assault on Precinct 13). Read Julien Allen’s review of Mesrine.