Like his fellow two-part-biopic subject, Che Guevara, French bank robber and jailhouse memoirist Jacques Mesrine has lived on in pop culture long after his actual life came to a spectacularly violent end, inspiring songs, gracing posters and T-shirts, and sparking endless debate over the exact circumstances of his 1979 assassination by Paris police. You won’t get much of a sense of why he has endured, alas, from watching director Jean-François Richet’s Mesrine, which makes its local premiere Friday evening as part of this year’s City of Lights, City of Angels film festival. Shot over eight months, on three continents, at a reported cost of $80 million, Mesrine is an undeniably big but ultimately paint-by-bullets gangster movie that grows increasingly tedious with each passing hour (four and a half of them, to be precise). We see Mesrine (played by Vincent Cassel) serve in the French army during the Algerian War; be taken under the wing of an older, wiser gangster (Gérard Depardieu); land in jail; briefly flirt with an ordinary civilian life, and then pick up his pistol once more. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
Richet’s first two features, Ma 6-T va crack-er and État des lieux, were among the best of the mid-’90s wave of films set in the violent Paris suburbs. But in this biopic, he tries to cram in so much it’s amazing we don’t witness Mesrine emerging from his mother’s womb. Consider that Soderbergh, in making Che, had the foresight to realize that a couple of key incidents from his subject’s life could prove endlessly more revealing than an exhaustive biography. Instead, Mesrine’s first section (subtitled The Death Instinct) rushes through the years and exotic locations like a neighbor’s vacation slide show, with only Cécile De France popping from the panorama as Mesrine’s partner in life and crime, Jeanne Schneider — a dark, sultry femme fatale who seems dangerous even before she coolly picks up a shotgun and helps Mesrine take down a crowded casino. Part two (Public Enemy Number One) slows the pace slightly, hones in on Mesrine’s somewhat absurd attempts to present himself as an anti-establishment revolutionary, and offers another juicy supporting character, in the form of Mesrine’s escape-artist cellmate, François Besse (played with typical scene-stealing aplomb by Mathieu Amalric). But getting that far, especially when the film’s two parts are screened as a double bill, is something like the cinematic equivalent of 20 years’ hard labor.
For a biopic in the festival done right, check out actor-turned-director Martin Provost’s Séraphine, which swept this year’s César Awards and, what’s more, deserved to. The less you know about the early-20th-century naïve painter Séraphine Louis (a.k.a. Séraphine de Senlis) going in — where she came from, how she was discovered, etc. — the better. But even some foreknowledge will hardly diminish the lyrical beauty of Provost’s film, which is, I think, the best movie made about a painter since Maurice Pialat’s exquisite Van Gogh in 1991 — and one of the only ones that truly grasps how close artistic genius dwells to the realm of madness. In her César-winning role, Belgian actress Yolande Moreau gives a private, eccentric, transfixing performance as the unlikely cause célèbre. The ravishing natural-light cinematography is by Laurent Brunet.
Also strongly recommended from COLCOA’s closing weekend is Philippe Lioret’s Welcome, a simple, spare and elementally human immigration drama — oceans removed from the broad caricaturing of The Visitor, Crossing Over et al. — about a teenage Kurd (excellent newcomer Firat Ayverdi) waylaid in Calais, who intends to complete his illegal passage to the U.K. by swimming across the English Channel.
And though critics aren’t inclined to recommend films sight-unseen, I feel fairly confident in urging you toward OSS 117: Lost in Rio — which, in a COLCOA coup, turns up here barely one week after its smash French opening. Although unavailable for advance review, it issues from the minds of the same inspired farceurs, co-writer/director Michel Hazanavicius and star Jean Dujardin, whose uproarious spy-movie send-up, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, played the festival last year. This time, after wreaking un-P.C. havoc all over the Middle East, chauvinistic, Brylcreem-and-Pepsodent secret agent Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath is off to capture an ex-Nazi on the lam in Brazil. Mel Brooks, eat your heart out. (Directors Guild of America; through Sun., April 26. www.colcoa.org)