To a greater or less extent, we are all solipsists. We live our lives trapped in a prison of pure subjectivity, profoundly alienated not only from the real world but from the subjective experiences of other people. We assume that people think like us and that the external world is out there for us to perceive and interact with but we don’t know. Not in the same way that we know whether or not we are thinking or feeling pain. We infer, we assume, we project, we deduce, but we do not know. That which is out there is not as real as that which is in here. We all possess this instinct. An instinct that has inspired countless philosophical schools from classical scepticism through empiricism and the the socialised idealism of post-modernity. It also explains why the dominant currency of the humanities is phenomenological; feelings, emotions, beliefs and the self. To creative people in thrall to the solipsistic instinct, these mental constructs seem far more real and far more accessible than facts about the real world and so they are accorded more importance. An excellent example of the privileged position of the phenomenological is the form of the autobiography.
Most autobiographies do not try to invoke impersonal forces or neurological causality in their attempts to explain the author’s decisions or apparent personality quirks. Instead, most autobiographies are stories. Stories in which the author is the protagonist while the real people they encountered in their life become extras, side-kicks, love-interests and villains. These are the kinds of stories that we all tell ourselves when we think about our place in the world.
Jean-Francois Richet’s L’Instinct de Mort (2008) is perhaps the most formally honest screen adaptation of an autobiography you are ever likely to see. The film’s representation of the life of famed French criminal Jacques Mesrine fully embraces the solipsism of both the autobiography and its psychopathic protagonist by showing us a world in which Mesrine is the hero while everyone else is just set dressing.
We first encounter Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) as a young soldier in Algeria. Sitting in on an interrogation, Mesrine is ordered to shoot a woman in the head in order to get her relatives to talk but Mesrine hesitates before killing one of the male prisoners instead. The film suggests that this moment might well have opened the flood-gates into a world of violence and bloodshed but I think that the scene’s true importance only becomes evident later on.
Upon returning to France, Mesrine follows a friend and drifts into a life of crime, falling out with his parents in the process. When asked why he never took up the steady work arranged for him, Mesrine lashes out at his father, accusing him of having collaborated with the Nazis. His father responds that being pressed into forced labour was hardly collaboration but Mesrine responds by screaming “Why do you think I went to Algeria?”. This is an odd response for two reasons. Firstly, it seems bizarre to place acting as an executioner for an occupying colonial army further up the moral pecking order than being forced upon pain of death into working for another occupying army. Secondly, we saw in the opening scene that Mesrine’s moral commitment to the Algerian War was rather less than full-throated. For me, this scene is about a man who, when placed under psychological pressure, will latch on to any moral framework that will allow him to have the upper hand. Real world issues of morality have no bearing upon which narrative Mesrine selects for himself. The story he tells about himself always puts him in the best possible light.
Killer Instinct is a strangely episodic film. It is breathlessly paced and undeniably covers a lot of ground, however, what ground it does cover, it mostly skims. Particularly when it comes to the other people in Mesrine’s life. For example, Mesrine’s first marriage to Sofia (Elena Ayana) is dealt with in only a few scenes. Rather than using these scenes to make Sofia a fully-rounded character and a force in Mesrine’s life, the film uses Sofia as a means of demonstrating Mesrine’s skill at seducing women as well as his capacity for violence when the marriage eventually collapses. The film uses the same methods in its depiction of Mesrine’s relationship with the ageing gangster Guido (a magnificently decaying Gerard Depardieu). When the two men meet, they size each other up as they clash wills. This clash suggests that, while intelligent enough to learn from people with greater experience, Mesrine is a man who plays by his own rules and who has little respect for the institutions he interacts with. In short, just as Sofia serves as a metaphorical place-holder for Mesrine’s interactions with women, the relationship between Mesrine and Guido represents Mesrine’s attitudes towards criminality as a whole. Jacques Mesrine’s friends exist only as reflecting surfaces for the glory and magnificence of Mesrine himself.
Vincent Cassel’s performance in this film has been justifiably praised to the rafters. Cassel is a perpetually charismatic and skilled actor and he has more than enough charisma to carry off this particular role. But the reason why this role demands such a charismatic central performance is because the film’s script is at once entirely hollow and utterly solipsistic. The film’s lack of interest in the world and people around Mesrine is rivalled only by its lack of interest in what made the man tick. It is a film that perfectly captures the narcissism and emptiness of the psychopath it is portraying.
The film’s most memorable sequences take place in Canada after Mesrine is forced to flee France. The film represents Canada as a kind of futuristic fascist state. After deciding with his girlfriend Jeanne (a wonderfully dry Cecile de France) to go straight, Mesrine takes a job as caretaker to a wealthy elderly man. However, when Jeanne gets into an argument with the old man’s gardener, the pair wind up being sacked. This leads to a botched kidnapping and Mesrine being sent to prison along with his politically radical friend Mercier (Roy Dupuis). In prison, Mercier and Mesrine are tortured by the cold-eyed and technocratic warden before being released into the general population where brutally armed guards patrol the fences. Of course, Mesrine escapes and returns along with Mercier to help break his friends out of prison. This results in a frankly surreal fire-fight in which Mesrine and Mercier drive up to the prison fence and try to murder all of the guards with machine guns. This sequence is hugely reminiscent of the ending of Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000) as both demonstrate their psychopathic protagonists’ capacity for self-mythologising. It suited Mesrine to portray Canada as a brutal fascist state as it legitimised his crimes there. The spectacular, over-the-top nature of the attempted prison-break catapults Mesrine from criminal to action hero, a type of person who operates on a different moral plane.
The Canadian section of the film is brilliantly encapsulated by the moment in which Mesrine is captured and put in front of the cameras. As in Mann’s Public Enemies (2009), the criminal poses, acutely aware of the importance of good PR. A journalist snaps at his camera-man “record whatever he says”. Suddenly, Mesrine has a platform. A means of addressing the world and a world that is willing to listen. After some thought, Mesrine smiles and says “Vive le Quebec Libre!”. A cause he has shown no interest in, knowledge of, or commitment to. It is Mercier’s cause, not his. However, adopting this slogan as his own has allowed Mesrine to paint himself as some kind of anti-establishment Robin Hood figure. A revolutionary rather than a brutal criminal. This is the same fantasy of moral agency that Mesrine brandished at his father at the beginning of the film. A fantasy that rings no less hollow.
Mesrine : Killer Instinct is a film all about a narcissistic psychopath. A psychopath whose narcissism is so complete that it verges on the solipsistic. For Mesrine, the world and the people around him exist in order to serve his ends. He is the only one who counts. When he falls out with his parents it is not because he has been caught doing something wrong, it is because he cannot stand living with a collaborator. The women in his life exist in order to be seduced and expertly made love to. The men are there to admire him or fight against him. The moral world aligns itself to whatever Mesrine wishes. His kidnapping attempt was not a spiteful and greedy attempt at revenge, nor were his bank-robberies grabs for the possessions of others, they were part of an attempt by Mesrine to fight the brutal Canadian state. Mesrine is a man with no understanding of what drives him. He cannot grasp that he is a shallow and selfish thug. But while he cannot change who he is, he can change the world around him in order to make him look better. Killer Instinct perfectly captures the mind-set of Jacques Mesrine by being just as shallow and brutal as he is.