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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film -

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

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