The best bad guy on the block
Gallic screen idol Vincent Cassel has made his name playing detestable villains. And now, in his most lauded role since his Taxi Driver- esque turn in La Haine, he’s about to set the screen on fire as iconic gangster Jacques Mesrine, writes Donald Clarke
Next week, the lucky cinema fan can enjoy the first episode of a two-part study of France’s most notorious hoodlum. Mesrine: Killer Instinct follows the titular anti-hero as he learns brutal lessons fighting for the French in Algeria, falls in with Gérard Depardieu’s crime kingpin, robs a few banks and eventually ends up causing mayhem in French Canada. Mesrine: Public Enemy No 1 arrives at the end of August to complete Jacques Mesrine’s story.
It hardly needs to be said that Vincent Cassel plays the lead. Who else? You could, I suppose, imagine Mathieu Amalric or Romain Duris waving the machine guns and crashing the sports cars, but, though both actors are talented and charismatic, neither emits the starry energy that surges from Cassel’s good-looking frame. Here’s a thought: Vincent Cassel might just be the best movie star we have. Okay, saddled with the handicap of emerging from a non-Anglophone territory, he will never become as famous as Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt. If, however, it is possible to view movie-starness (movie-starosity?) as something distinct from earning power, then Cassel has, surely, as great a surfeit as any current actor.
Watching him sashay around the set of Mesrine, it is tempting to drag up comparisons with earlier French actors such as Alain Delon or Jean-Paul Belmondo. Cassel, now 42, can, if required, wear a suit and make with the suavity of Delon (see Ocean’s Twelve and Thirteen). More often, he allows a fag to be shoved in the corner of his mouth and takes on the uncouth grumpiness of Belmondo ( Eastern Promises, The Crimson Rivers).
He can also do proper acting in several languages. When he signed up for David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, he taught himself conversational Russian in a few weeks and – though that country’s tourist board may not have smiled – delivered a very convincing Slavic hoodlum. Depardieu, by way of contrast, has never even got his head round English. Still, despite Cassel’s willingness to adapt, Hollywood has (somewhat predictably) continued to see him as a hollandaise-soaked villain.
When I met him a few years ago, he had just completed work on an extremely dodgy thriller titled Derailed. While Clive Owen got to play the hero, Cassell was asked to sock Jennifer Aniston in the jaw and cackle from various ill-lit corners.
“I don’t think it is to do with me,” he replied in immaculate English. “It is to do with being French. French actors always play villains in American films. It used to be the British. I am not crazy about the situation.”
As if to complete the movie star package, Cassel got himself married to the most glamorous of female actors. He and Monica Bellucci, his co-star in Irréversible and many other films, have been together for 10 years and now have a four-year-old daughter. Listen to what I say. Il est le paquet entier.
Vincent Cassel learned the art of stardom on his father’s knee. Jean-Pierre Cassel, who died two years ago, began his career as a dancer before going on to appear in such distinguished French films as Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Claude Chabrol’s La Rupture and JeanPierre Melville’s L’armée des Ombres.
“When you grow up as the kid of somebody famous it’s something you don’t suddenly realise,” Cassel said. “It is, rather, something you are always aware of.” Jean-Pierre, who had the same long face and unavoidable nose as his son, did not encourage the younger man’s drift into showbusiness.
Indeed, Cassel feels that his parents deliberately set barriers in his way to test his determination. If he was stubborn enough to battle past mum and dad’s disapproval then, they believed, he might just have what it takes to sustain a career.
He first trained as a circus performer and, like Burt Lancaster, who also took that route, continues to move in a slightly stylised manner. You feel that he could, if required, balance a medicine ball on his nose while firing his machine gun. Later, while shooting Ocean’s Twelve, his training allowed him to attempt all his own stunts.
“I had this fantasy that American actors could do all these sort of things themselves,” he said. “I wanted to have those same abilities. Then, of course, when I got to do American films, I realised they don’t do that stuff at all.”
Cassel first made a significant noise as a disaffected resident of Paris’s less lovely suburbs in his pal Mathieu Kassovitz’s hugely influential 1995 film La Haine. Filmed in glassy black and white, the film’s worldwide success reminded viewers that, despite all the Marxist jabbering of the nouvelle vague, French cinema had, to that point, largely ignored the urban poor and had equally little to do with the immigrant communities.
An impressively smart guy, Cassel has divided feelings about the French cultural establishment. He loves Paris and would live nowhere else, but he recognises that French artists and intellectuals are prone to insularity. “In France people suggested that we subtitle La Haine in French,” he snorted. “A lot of people in the industry couldn’t understand what was being said. The cinema in France was this bourgeois microcosm. It is a little better now. But then you had this bourgeois de gauche, as we say – the left-wing bourgeoisie – who ran the industry. You looked at the films of the time and couldn’t see ordinary life there.”
In the years that followed, eager to broaden his range, Cassel appeared in a suave thriller ( L’Appartement), a crazy horror flick ( Brotherhood of the Wolf), a surreal western ( Blueberry) and, most conspicuously, a hugely notorious rape/revenge drama (Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible). Depending upon your inclination, Noé’s film – in which Cassel crushes the wrong man’s skull while trying to avenge his wife’s rape – is either the ultimate feminist fable or a deeply dubious exercise in violent pornography. The core of the film, which is told backwards, explicitly details the uninterrupted nine-minute assault on a likeable woman, played by Ms Bellucci herself. If nothing else, Cassel’s participation proved that he was serious about his art.
“Monica made me leave the set for that scene, so I went on holiday in the south of France,” he said recently. “She was worried I might hit the actor who was raping her, that I couldn’t watch it.”
As is often the case with actors from nonEnglish speaking countries, Cassel finds himself in the position of being a mainstream star in his own territory and a charismatic, reliable supporting player in Hollywood. When dumped beside various Damons, Pitts and Clooneys in the Ocean’s films, he barely seems famous at all, but his sand-in-the-oyster Gallic charisma is easily a match for their less astringent charms. If he can avoid the temptation to appear in a dumb romantic comedy opposite Paris Hilton, then he should have no trouble securing respectable work in the dream factory for decades to come.
If, however, you want a shot of undiluted, cask-strength Cassel then you have to turn to his French films. Vincent finally won a César Award – France’s premier movie gong – for his performance as Jacques Mesrine, and Killer Instinct turns out to be an invigoratingly cool and persuasively amoral piece of work.
Swaggering like a brighter, nastier Steve McQueen, Cassel positively gobbles up the role of thief, hostage taker and all-round nutcase. Watch him launch a one-man assault on a heavily protected Canadian prison. Watch him stare down Gérard Depardieu. Yes, he might just be our most convincing movie star.
Above: As Jacques Mesrine in Killer Instinct. Below: Showing off Mesrine’s disguises. Below left: Cassel’s breakthrough role in La Haine