Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Public Enemy Is Number One

Jean-Francois Richet's last film was the US remake of Assault on Precinct 13. He returned to France to make L'Instinct De Mort (Public Enemy Number One), a 240 minute crime thriller that is fucking impressive.

Vincent Cassel plays real life crime torpedo Jacques Mesrine, a man who saw himself as a "revolutionary". Not everybody agreed with his definition of the term, but that's part of the fun.

Richet documents Mesrine's incredible career via powerhouse cinema. Some critics have complained about the film's "overstylization" and lack of substance. I say "Bullshit!" to that. It's not overstylized or lacking in substance. It cuts to the chase and gives us a very clear sense of what Mesrine was about.

Is it a "French Scarface" as some have suggested? No! Why does it need to be? Why does it need to be categorized like that?

L'Instinct De Mort is a work of great velocity and passion. The violence is brutal and sudden, similar at times to the intensity of the street shootout in Michael Mann's Heat. The character work is superb. Every part is impeccably cast. I particularly loved the way Mesrine's relationships with women were portrayed. "You're just a piece of ass!" he complains at one point, distilling the reality and the folly of romantic relationships for a man such as himself.

One of the film's many beautiful pleasures is watching Gerard Depardieu deliver a volcanic performance as Guido, a cold crime boss who forms a bond with Cassel's Mesrine early on. Their on-screen chemistry is electric.

I've seen a handful of very decent films lately, but this trumps them all.


  1. Phantom, as you know, some critics say things for effect.

    1. I have noticed many critics use the expression 'style over substance' simply to appear...clever/authoritative/informed/educatedetc.

    This expression needs to be used with care, and sparingly at best- lest it become null and void and lose it's currency. Everyone knows if we children don't play with our toys nicely they will be taken from us.

    Listen; cinema IS for stylists.

    Our obsession with dialogue and chit chat has caused us to forget this one important fact. Dialogue, no matter how clever, has little to do with 'style' in it's classical definition in terms of the filmic image.

    The world is full of words, and 95% of them are unnecessary. Including these ones.

    William Goldman is a wordsmith, and a witty one at times, but I cannot go a day without thinking of the closing image of 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid'. I'm not even going to inquire as to who thought of that- Hill or Goldman. Just spoils the fun.

    If anyone else can think of a single image that tops this one, I would love to hear it. I'll bet it will take a little while to knock me off my perch.

    And it had zero to do with words. Roy Batty's dying words in 'Blade Runner'- as memorable as they were- shrivel like a limp dick in an icebath compared to the gorgeous image of the rain dripping from Roy's blonde hair as he gently slumps forward.

    'Go ahead; make my day'.

    Argue with me.

    Let's see what lasts the longest- the catchphrase or the image.

    'Style over Substance' boy put your hand down.

    Remember how loathe they were at the cusp of the sound era to let the actors talk?

    They might have been right.

    Take a moment to go back to Tarkovsky. Take a long weekend if you have to- and believe me, children, from time to time we have to- and watch the poetry of the style.

    Go back to the silents if you like; I must say, over and above 'Caligari', I am lost in the silents, but at least they are silent.

    You might consider M. Tati, or for a suberb contemporary example, take a look at a film by Mark Savage entitled 'Defenceless'.

    They all share the same gift- using style as a language more poetic than any words.

    'Style over Substance'? No, mon cherie, 'The Style IS the Substance', and done properly, elevates the word 'style' to where is belongs; as a compliment, rather than an insult.

    The next person I hear talking about 'style over substance' when they clearly and patently have no idea what the fuck they are talking about gets put up against a wall, fucked silly with a rusty Jap bayonet and shot.

    2. And the 'Scarface' comparison?

    Of course I see your point, Phantom. But as you bloody well know there are those who cannot go 24 hours without saying 'This Years Tarantino', or 'The New Hostel'.

    They need a ready frame of reference in order to negotiate the difficult task of serious film appreciation more easily. They need short cuts, rather than working with the art patiently like we do.

    We do the work, and take the time with the artist, rather than rushing through a film impatiently as if we have somewhere better to be, and at the end dismissing it blithely with a soundbite as we move on to the next cab off the rank. These words- 'Scarface Like', or 'Tarantinoesque' are signposts for the lazy and barely interested; like a road map of cinema for the blind.

    One wonders why they bother- I will wager it has nothing to so with the flickering images...

    Their only way around the planet is to hop from film to film like a frog on lily pads, jumping away from each pad as quickly as they can by dismissing it with words that sound as if they are pitching a stale idea to a nonexistent studio.

    Spare them a thought, Phantom. We should be kind to the intellectally challenged.

    Long live the resonant image, and all who worship her.

    Damned few left...

  2. Gerard Depardieu of "My Father the Hero" fame!? Interesting.

    Thanks for posting about this movie, I have never heard of the film and it sounds great. I thought it was an older film until I read the post and I shall most certainly keep an eye out for it. The only issue I may have is I cannot read the title without it being in the voice of Chuck D...actually, that's not a problem at all! What am I thinking?

    And most of the time I'll take style over substance, as long as the style is done well...the simplest stories are sometimes the greatest ones.