Talking Movies

December 22, 2009

(Public) Enemies Foreign and Domestic

Well, it’s not every year Hollywood and France go head to head – in this case with big brassily confident biopics of real-life criminals adulated by the media who specialised in audacious bank-heists – only for everyone to conclude that Hollywood’s version lacked the infectious sense of fun that marked the French take…

Michael Mann isn’t noted for his sense of humour but humour isn’t necessary if you’re presenting compelling drama, however if people are bored they’ll always astringently note, ‘this is a humourless bore’. Mesrine is far funnier than Public Enemies and crucially Mesrine obviously enjoys robbing banks, there is an utter fecklessness to the Quebec double hold-up when, having gone to great lengths to establish that they have 30 seconds before they get shot dead by the police, his Quebecois partner suggests hitting the bank across the street and Mesrine agrees. By contrast Dillinger’s bank-raids are presented as an efficient piece of craftwork…

This sense of efficiency bedevils Mann’s film – everything you expect from a gangster film is present and correct but there is little attempt to delve beneath the surface. Public Enemies lacks context. The great unaddressed topic of the film is the FBI, the scene with Hoover being grilled in a Senate hearing promised much as an intriguing sub-plot about the legal and political machinations involved in the rise of the Bureau but that storyline is never developed beyond the fascinating reaction of the Mob to the implications of the federal legal response to Dillinger’s cross-state crime-sprees for their own continental business. Mann’s epic drops us into Dillinger’s career just months from its end whereas two films take us through Mesrine’s entire life giving us clear motivation where Mann only half-suggests that, like the anti-heroes in Breach or Jesse James, Dillinger yearns to be punished. The concluding text suggests a Ford/James bond between Melvin Purvis and Dillinger but Christian Bale is not given the screen-time necessary to register this and in any case Bale and Depp are both woefully blank for the majority of their performances, only occasionally emoting ‘driven’ and ‘roguish’ respectively.

Public Enemies also suffers from a deeply cavalier approach to fleshing out supporting characters. If you knew who David Wenham was for certain in less than an hour then you’re a better man than me Gunga Din. Mesrine is of course more sexual than Public Enemies but that shouldn’t necessarily be so given that Dillinger’s moll is French star Marion Cotillard, however, she is rendered as anaemic as a long line of French actresses have been by Hollywood. It’s at this point that you note that Mesrine has its cake and eats it with its introduction of Cecile de France’s Jeanne Schneider as the Bonnie to Mesrine’s Clyde being reminiscent of Pulp Fiction and superbly subversive of the type of hyper-sexual introduction we expect, which Ludivine Sagnier’s moll Sylvie then receives…

Mesrine: Killer Instinct is dizzying geographically as it takes us from France to Quebec via Algeria and Spain in a series of acutely observed vignettes. This is mirrored in Mesrine’s interior journey from reluctant soldier encouraged to torture and kill by his superiors in the battle against Algeria’s independence movement, to demobbed man who dabbles in crime, before we see him morph convincingly and touchingly to family man who gets an honest job and obviously enjoys his work before being laid off and so turning inexorably to a life of crime. It is this sense that Mesrine was forced by circumstance, including government sanctioned brutality, to criminality that makes him a much more empathetic character than Dillinger. The lack of true motivation for Dillinger is a problem made worse by Depp’s mixture of boredom and insouciance in the heists which defeats the intended reading that Dillinger robs for kicks. Crime becomes a dangerous drug for Mesrine as it feeds his ego and his recklessness which become more monstrous until he simply burns through criminal partners and women who tire of his machismo. Mesrine: Public Enemy No 1 does very well what only a few scenes in Public Enemies hint at – the growing distance between Robin Hood and bank-robber, even as their need to justify their crimes as revolutionary anti-capitalism or the common man striking back becomes more obsessive.

Mann’s new digital shooting style deglamorises by removing the sheen we expect from film. Mesrine by contrast opts for a very filmic sheen and, as well as 1970s split-screens, a number of dazzlingly ornate camera movements such as the spinning away sequence in solitary confinement in Quebec and the extravagant car-mounted camera for the spectacular car-crash shot in Paris. Mann’s down and dirty digital style renders the savage gun-battles with thundering immediacy, and impressively makes them feel totally different to his own previous personal best Heat’s epic shoot-out on the streets of LA, but ‘authenticity’ is not always desirable – too often it feels like it was shot in Mann’s back-yard with a camcorder while Mesrine was shot on soundstages and locations with heinously expensive equipment.

Mesrine is almost a Hollywood production filtered through a French sensibility, full of bravura film-making. Public Enemies in its more suspenseful sequences of surveillance and engagement matches it, but Mann’s emphasis on gritty 1930s visuals rather than his characters or his history mean that while both films are flawed Mesrine’s melding of influences is more interesting and successful, and in the end it is just more fun…and that was unexpected.

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