Thursday, July 29, 2010

Fantasia Day 21 - Mesrine

And so it ends. It is with mixed feelings that I type my final review of the 2010 Fantasia Festival. (I will be doing a wrap-up post as well.) I'm pretty weary and ready to get back to my real-life (kung fu is going to be very painful tonight), but I will miss having the opportunity to see one great film after another, night after night.

Last night's screening of the two-part epic gangster bio-pic Mesrine was an interesting event. It felt totally different than the rest of the festival. It was much more connected to the Quebec community at large and much less geek-focused. It barely felt like I was at Fantasia. First of all, the media was all over the place, which surprised me, as I thought last night was the big night. I didn't realize that this film and Roy Dupuis' presence as going to be such a big deal (it also explained why the closing night was last night; that was actually a reschedule as Mesrine was originally scheduled for Tuesday, but Roy Dupuis wasn't available so they swapped them).

Like flies to shit.

As he ages and his head widens, Roy Dupuis looks more and more like Bruce Campbell. I was not alone in this assessment, as my friend had independently remarked upon seeing Bruce Campbell recently in Burn Notice how much he looks like Roy Dupuis!

The other difference was that big blocks of seats were pre-reserved and there were well-dressed young women directing people to their seats. A lot of them were for media and people associated with Alliance Vivafilms, but there was also a big chunk of contest winners for Le Journal. It made for an interesting mix, with the classic, younger, geeky/hipster Fantasia crowd in the back and an older, more pure laine Québécois group in the front.

Resentment fades when I realize that these seats are reserved for the people!

The thing that really caught me off guard, though, was that the line-up started moving early. I was totally not expecting it. I turned around and suddenly the people in front of me had disappeared. It felt kind of like someone had suddenly taken away the wall I had been leaning against. Unfortunately, the efficiency of the Fantasia crew (and once again I applaud how well run the festival has been this year from a logistics standpoint) was undermined by the people managing the Alliance Vivafilm participation. The seats were full by 6:30, when the film was scheduled to start, but nothing was happening. Nothing happened until 6:50 when the crowd broke into spontaneous clapping. Finally, someone from Fantasia came up on stage and we were psyched. But oh no, once again, we had to have an interminable string of thank yous and empty platitudes from the distribution company.

It was clear that they were stalling and the crowd was getting truly annoyed. What was funny was that it was actually the older crowd who were the most cantankerous. The Fantasia regulars just seemed psyched to have any opportunity to yell out, while the middle-aged woman next to my wife was really griping ("On s'en fout!", "Voyons, commençons!") and the old guy in front of me went outside and complained furiously. I like Quebecers in a group like this. They aren't scared of making their feelings known.

[I'd like to make a brief aside about the guy sitting in front of me. He was a petit older guy, nicely but modestly dressed and I noticed he was reading a booklet with a black and white image on it. When I looked closer, I saw it was a picture from The Housemaid. I apologized for reading over his shoulder and asked what he was reading. It turns out it was the booklet for the DVD release of the re-mastered The Housemaid. We had a nice conversation about the movie and he said that the remake was really good as well. "Oh, yes, I heard it was quite good. Where did you see it?" I asked. "At Cannes," he replied. I was impressed.]

The delay is not a good thing, but the way it was handled was worse. The woman from VivaFilm didn't seem to know who was and was not present, but seemed to be trying to get them to come up anyways. Then she basically blamed the talent for the delay, saying that there were a lot of media interviews, which is good. Well it's good for you, but not for us! No real apology from her, no real thanks for our patience and then, with mic in hand, she takes out her blackberry and starts checking her text messages! Finally, Roy Dupuis saunters in, gets a big applause, looks around as if he is staring into the cosmos and then heads to the stage. He and several other actors stand there for a few seconds and then leave. It was awkward, but at least the movie was starting finally!

This is what I came for and it took a while for me to get it!

The two films are L'instinct de mort and  L’ennemi public n°1. In the Fantasia schedule, they both had Mesrine: in front of the title, but in the movies themselves they didn't. I will refer to the two together as Mesrine. Though the two movies differ in style and pacing somewhat, they are definitely of a piece and were meant to be seen together (though whether you need to is another matter).

I have mixed feelings. During the movie, especially the first half of the first one, I was feeling really disappointed. It is very much standard bio-pic stuff. It was full of all the obligatory scenes: the arbitrary, excessive violence against a rude patron in the bar, the screaming match with the once naive now weary with children first wife, the taking the bullet out of the wound (and why do the bloody slugs always have to be dropped into a glass of water?!). What's worse, the intensity and fast pacing that were promised were nowhere to be found. The story moves forward briskly but the scenes themselves were quite slow. It is beautifully produced and shot and Vincent Cassel was great, thoroughly absorbed and absorbing. But there was nothing new here for me.

Look he shoots a guy in the leg in a bar fight and that shows us how he is willing to go jusqu'au bout which will help him rise to the top in his career as a gangster.

Things get much better when he goes to prison in Quebec. The movie takes a nastier turn and adds a much needed political edge. The escape is also quite exciting. Fortunately, the second movie, for the most part, keeps with this trend, focusing almost clinically on his two famous escapes. The pacing and style really pick up as well, with a lively camera. The character also comes alive and Cassel is fantastic at projecting his ego and charisma and just sheer force of personality. When he's ranting at the judges in a trial, you kind of hate him because you know he is mostly full of shit and using politics and cheap rhetoric for his own ends but you can't help loving him at the same time. [The petit guy in front of me, who had been lukewarm about the first movie was absolutely loving the second part, laughing and shaking in his chair.]

The closing act, the end of which opens both films, involves Mesrine and his girlfriend trying to sneak to a new hideout. They are staked the entire way by the cops who finally block them on the street with a truck and gun them down. This act really encompasses my ambivalence to the scene. It is very long and detailed, with multiple camera angles of things we'd already seen in the beginning (except that time, inexplicably, it was done with multiple frames, a stylistic device I like if you don't just decide to throw it out the window for the rest of the movie, thus rendering it weirdly out of place). I was feeling quite weary by this point and you already know what is going to happen, so there is no real suspense. Yet the scene keeps trying to amp up the tension, by having nervous cops in their hiding places freaking out as he gets closer to them. I found myself sort of frustrated and wanted them to get on with it. Then I realized, oh wait, this is like a totally slickly shot, cool-looking and very detailed observation of a tightly-organized police surveillance operation taking place in the 1970s, I love this shit, why aren't I into it?

After the movie, I went and did some research on Mesrine and he really had a crazy criminal career. Both films start with a little quote saying that basically saying the movie should not necessarily be taken as the total truth. But there is really nothing exaggerated in the movie. On the contrary, it seems like it was actually quite faithful to the facts of his life. The two prison breaks are extremely tight reproductions of what actually went down. (Check out this newspaper diagram of his escape from the high security Prison de la Santé; if you saw the movie you will see how detailed and accurate a re-enactment it was.)

I share this info with you because it is at the root of my ambivalence about the film. As I was watching it and immediately after, I felt that it lacked both a compelling narrative and any kind of thematic depth. But now after having done some research on the actual guy (who seems to be a big part of french popular culture, judging at least by the amount of websites about him), I see how much effort was done to try and capture what actually happened. Furthermore, I really appreciated the lack of sentimentality. The question I was torn about in the final scene (why am I watching this?) applies to the whole movie. Had I known about Mesrine's life and career beforehand or had I been fully prepared for a history lesson, I suspect I would have had a much more enjoyable time. Because I think the mission of the movie was simply to tell the story of his life without too much commentary either way. The slow pace and clichéd choice of scenes in the first part is less forgivable, though, and I think tried my patience and endurance too much.

This is a long movie with a lot of stuff in it that I haven't mentioned. I think if you are a fan of the history of the period or of Mesrine, you should see the whole thing. If you are a fan of the crime, heist and escape genres than I would suggest only seeing the second one (the Quartier Haute Sécurité prison escape is truly top-notch). Personally, I really wish that Roy Dupuis had been available on Tuesday, because Tucker and Dale would have been the perfect movie to truly close the festival and would have made Mesrine much more appreciated in reflection.

[There is a term I've learned here called Vox-Pop, which I think may exist only in french or in Québec, even though it was also called vox-pop on the english sides of the releases. It's when viewers share their opinion about the movie and are filmed, I guess the footage is used for publicity, maybe for various entertainment shows that are hyping the film. Some of these people actually sounded like they had some interesting stuff to say on the movie and I would have loved to eavesdrop, but they seemed nervous enough in front of the camera without me leaning in. I wonder if anyone was critical?]

Monsieur... madame tout le monde are not shy about sharing their feelings about the movie. And that is the way it should be.

1 comment:

Red Devil said...

You may be onto something in identifying a certain deliberate detachment the filmmakers were looking for when they made these two films. And you are probably right when you say that the films might be better if you knew a little more about the man and his times before you see them. I don't doubt their authenticity as far as sequences of events go.

A less generous reading might be that they simply failed at presenting his character as an anti-hero you can get behind. And the film does seem to be made to have those moments of great heroic triumph.

But I think they would have been better - albeit more manipulative - if they had given us the chance to see Mesrine as the people of the day had seen him. Then maybe we would have been more interested in him - because as it is we are watching and trying to sympathize with a somewhat charismatic psychopath for close to four hours. And we are always asking why? For me it lacked the cultural context, we are never let in on anything that give us a reason to cheer for him or despise him outright.

There are really only a couple moments where you get a hint of why he was such a popular figure. When he arrives back in Quebec and gives the 'Vive Le Québec Libre' quote, which he seems to be obviously parroting just because he knows it sounds cool, and the courtroom speech in the second film where he takes on 'the system'. But even that feels like a bunch of self-serving hot air.

I think there is a big difference between making a clearly morally ambiguous film and just leaving the audience hanging. I think they may have been trying for something like this but they still wanted all the emotional heft of a Hollywood action flic as well. For me it falls in a curiously muddled middle ground.

That being said it did, as you point out, have some great sequences, and I really enjoyed Vincent Cassel's pretty much constantly awesome performance.