Jacques Mesrine and the Tragic-Hero Narrative

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Jacques Mesrine died on November 2nd 1979 aged 43. His relatively short but action packed life came to an end on a cold Saturday morning when 19 police bullets passed through the windscreen of his car.

Mesrine’s story, little known outside of France, has recently made it onto the big screen in the form of a gangster flick of sorts; split into two parts – Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy No.1 – and directed by Jean-François Richet, the film chronicles the trials and tribulations of the man some describe as the ‘French Godfather’, who gained notoriety throughout the sixties and seventies for a series of audacious bank robberies, kidnappings, and jailbreaks.

Mesrine (played in the film by Vincent Cassel) exudes charisma, and despite his temper and occasional outbursts of brutish violence, is ultimately endearing to the audience in a Travis Bickle-esque way. Mesrine is a classic tragic-hero, a troubled outlaw who becomes obsessed with his own celebrity. Crossing somewhere between Charles Bronson and John Dillinger, he is a hybrid criminal spawned from the contradictions of capitalist modernity; a materialist but a non-conformist, a father but a murderer, a lover but also a hater – Mesrine thrives upon these contradictions as much as he does on his infamy as both a public enemy and a public hero. Mesrine is Robin Hood transposed from the forest to the city.

Like the tale of Robin Hood, Mesrine’s story is also characterized by an air of romance between the public and the protagonist; the way in which we romanticize criminal behavior in this context reflecting a subversive impulse that has been illustrated time and time again by the resonance and popularity of the anti-hero narrative – from Bonnie and Clyde to Ronnie Biggs – and with Mesrine things are no different. He is likeable because he taunts and attacks the things most of us quietly disdain; authority, banks, millionaire landlords – and in his righteousness we rejoice; as he derides the corruption of the prison system when in court, mocking the judges clothing before remarking in defense of his bank robberies that he “may be a robber,” but is only a “small robber, robbing a bigger one.”

Behind the romance though, behind Mesrine’s heroic yet brutish façade lies the tragedy that he is essentially a lost soul whose fate has long since spun from his grasp on an unstoppable, fast moving downward spiral towards his inevitable, premature death. Whether the character is Clyde Barlow, Sonny Wortzik, Scarface or even Macbeth the death of the tragic-hero is always somewhat poetic and similarly cathartic – and again Mesrine is no different, his death inflicted by policemen who rain a storm of bullets down upon him, finally managing to avenge their nemesis, their tormentor.

For the audience, Mesrine’s death is deflating because his lifeless body signifies that the excitement is over – no more bank robberies, no more standing up to ‘the man’ – it’s back to the daily grind, to the uninterrupted routines; life without the tragic-hero is safer, but boring. And it is for exactly this reason that we choose to adorn the likes of Mesrine with our subverted romanticism, for it is not necessarily the actions per se that we romanticize, rather what the actions themselves symbolize: defiance, rebellion and the exhilaration that is offered by both of these things from the escapist confines of the four cinema walls. For the duration of the film, we too get to experience the adrenaline rush upon which the outlaw thrives; only unlike him, we get to leave alive and free.

R.J. Gallagher – 01.09.09.