France (2001) Dir. Cédric Kahn
For some people, being number one is lifelong ambition, be it in the pop charts, a sports league, in the film box office rankings and so on. Being Public Enemy Number One may not be a desired goal for some, but when attained it is lot harder to be deposed from this inauspicious position than it is the music charts.
The Italian Roberto Succo is one man who enjoyed such notoriety as France’s most wanted in the 1980’s and this film from director Cédric Kahn, based on the 1991 book Je te tue. Histoire vraie de Roberto Succo assassin sans raison by Pascale Froment, relates this amazing true story to us.
In 1981, Succo (Stefano Cassetti) is sentenced to a decade in a psychiatric prison for the grisly murder of his parents but after five years he escapes while on day release. Arriving in France and calling himself Kurt, he meets a young girl, Léa (Isild Le Besco), and they begin an erratic relationship. During this time Succo continued to commit many crimes which Léa knew nothing about, but when she decides to end it with Succo he is forced to flee France after killing two policemen. Arriving Switzerland Succo is now a wanted man, his erratic behaviour catching the attention of the police almost immediately.
While obviously fictionalised and highly dramatised it is remarkable to learn that most of the events depicted here are indeed true, and one has to wonder just how someone who was so demonstrably unstable was able to remain at large for so long. Kahn’s non-judgemental telling of Succo’s story earned him the wrath of the French police force, who presumably saw this as an indictment of their inability to capture such an openly dangerous man.
It was established after the murder of his parents that Succo was deemed mentally ill so surely his escape from the prison should have been made an international concern for all European police. By changing names and his appearance Succo was able to avoid suspicion for a long time, even if his behaviour and crime patterns were instantly recognisable.
Succo must have had some inherent charm for such a disturbed man to be able to woo Léa rather quickly. They are a couple on a weekly basis only, with “Kurt” often vague about his interim activities. Even when Léa realises he has been stealing she turns a blind eye to this, while unaware of the rapes, kidnaps and hostage situations.
However it is his demanding personality and forceful ideas of marriage and children which upsets Léa the most, and of course the lies – one minute admitting to killing his parents, the next saying it was a lie and he was off home to visit them. Succo, now posing as André, befriends more young girls at a nightclub in another town but again his violent temper when other boys try to join in the fun ruins it for everyone.
It was the testimony of a former kidnap victim who escaped unharmed that finally helped put the French police onto Succo’s track, after spending too much time tracing the various stolen cars he had dumped. For someone with such a childish and black and white view of the world because of his mental condition, Succo is shown to be something of a genius in how he evades capture in France despite leaving a very overt trail of destruction behind him.
In Switzerland he wasn’t so lucky to go unnoticed for so long but again the Swiss police were too easy to outsmart. It was only when he returned home to Italy that he was finally caught and eventually jailed before committing suicide in 1988, aged just 26. Right until the end Succo still managed to maintain a sense of righteous indignation at his treatment by the authorities and often his anarchic outbursts and criticisms of the system served as the basis for his sophistry defence.
Regardless of how gruesome and senseless Succo’s crimes were, he is a very interesting case subject to ponder. Kahn’s film does nothing to explore his background or the possible causes for murdering his parents, not does he even try to proffer any psychological explanations either. Certainly his eccentric behaviour should have been a dead giveaway but then again some people are quirky without being mentally ill so to the untrained eye, he may just have appeared like the nervous type.
Outside of the rapes (which were never shown) Succo’s crimes were also unique in that the victims were often chosen at random with no prior connection to him. He would either stop them at roadside or break into their home and force them to drive out into the woods, here he would make them strip then drive off with their clothes. Few people if any actually got hurt, so what was the point?
With his wide, piercing blue eyes and slight frame, Stefano Cassetti in his debut role delivers a frighteningly convincing portrayal as Succo, oddly at ease with the dishevelled appearance and the nervous energy that drives his character. Because Succo isn’t your regular sociopath Cassetti plays him like the enigma that he is – someone we know is dangerous but has an air of pathos and naivety about them that engenders a curious sense of pity.
Isild Le Besco is an underrated actress despite a two decade career under her belt and even at the time of this film she was a five year veteran aged just 19. She may have been playing a typical teen as Léa but one can see the nuance and maturity of her acting already. Other strong support comes from Viviana Aliberti, playing a Swiss woman Succo hijacks and holds hostage leading to a taut car chase.
Roberto Succo is an intense and compelling thriller, presenting us with a unique antagonist and his amoral actions in a dispassionate manner, making it all the more chilling.