The Versatility, Genius, and Eternal Toughness of Vincent Cassel

Vincent Cassel

Vincent Cassel is the Marquis de Sade of bad guys in French film. There really isn’t any comparison among French actors, and it’s a hard press in the rest of the acting world to find anyone as well gifted for portraying the infamous and nefarious. He’s as tough as they come. Bearing this in mind, unless you have a stomach for the level of graphic violence and taboo, often grotesque imagery of some of the scenes, his versatility, genius and authenticity can become complementarily obscured by the magnitude of the material’s content.

Vincent was born in the midst of his father, Jean-Pierre Cassel’s French New Wave acting with notable directors such as Claude Chabrol and Luis Buñuel of the Young Turks, Jean Renoir and Philippe de Broca also of the French New Wave. Among many other roles his father would deliver, through an array of associated affiliations, friendships and connections, the wide variety of genres being depicted gave Vincent and his siblings tremendous access to the film community at large in France. There was no shortage of inspiration, expertise, exposure and influence in the Cassel household.

In 1995, Cassel’s César Award nominations for Best Actor and Most Promising Actor from his work in the film La Haine kicked-off well and catapulted Cassel’s career in which he brilliantly portrayed the role of ‘Vinz,’ a Jewish twenty-something immigrant living with his family in a poverty stricken suburb of Paris. Along with his three friends, Vinz secretly envisions himself as Robert De Niro’s character in Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle, but bent on gaining attention and recognition among his fellow thugs by killing a cop. As they flee this situation, the film’s arc carries the trio through a series of degenerated misadventures and socially inept hostile encounters that expose the true nature of Vinz as something other than the thug he poses and acts as.  Just as Vinz and his friends return to their families and try to resume a modicum of right living, a policeman encounters him and kills him in a confrontation, creating a microcosmic metaphor to sectors of French society’s freefall through senseless brutality, especially in economically distressed environments.

In exhorting the impact of social dilemma often fueled by situational conflict arising from compromised conditions and problematic circumstances, Cassel captures and delivers an essence of realism also found in former New Wave films such as Breathless, The 400 Blows and Bande à part (Band of Outsiders).

My first exposure to Vincent Cassel wasn’t immediately in a tough guy role, and it was later in his career, but attributes to his versatility as an actor to perform outside the typical bad guy role. The 2009 Brazilian film À Deriva (Adrift) done in Portuguese casts Cassel as the father of a teenage girl coming of age amidst her parent’s separation and learning about her father’s infidelity. In many ways Vincent Cassel exhibits a softer, more responsible, more amenable figure.

Cassel portrays this same good-guy side of himself in L’Appartement, a 1996 French film set in Paris in which he is an as yet unaccomplished writer who accepts a position in New York and mysteriously leaves his intensely loved girlfriend behind. Flashing forward two years, he moves back to Paris and gets engaged, but not before encountering his first true love. Complications ensue as he discovers a friend of his first love pretending to be her and to complicate things further, there are two additional men trying to date these two women as well. A seriously complex subplot occurs when the pretending woman is observed acting in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, and events unfold parallel to the great play, drawing an uncanny correlation to the Shakespearean work.

After an initial bad boy role in 1995 with La Haine, Cassel went on to play a more critical role as an unsung figure, a journalist and dissident politician Camille Desmoulins in the French-American collaborated film Jefferson In Paris depicting Thomas Jefferson’s pre-Presidential experiences as a liaison during the start of the French Revolution. Cassel’s character historically sparks the riots that grow into the attacks that would eventually lead to the formation of a Republic he strongly promoted.

In some ways, the level of expertise Cassel demonstrated to accurately portray Desmoulins decries his abilities as a technical savant. The mere fact Desmoulins was a bad boy by all means, though his cause was just, allowed Cassel to be an even more suitable fit for the role, also allowing him to fill into the historical, technical and romantic figure of a folk hero he would later realize multiple-award winning recognition in subsequent roles as the less ethical uber-bad boy real-life French bank robber, Mesrine. Yet, before this, Cassel would achieve additional award recognition.

In the 2001 French film Sur Mes Lèvres (Read My Lips), Vincent Cassel plays a paroled ex-con who helps an under-respected, mostly deaf and co-worker-tormented construction company secretary to re-explore her possibilities in life romantically with his awkward advances and professionally by ultimately putting her ability to read lips into practice, hence the name, helping him to rob a nightclub owner he is indebted to. Cassel’s character, Paul, convinces the secretary, Carla, played by Emmanuelle Devos, to follow his errant ways, so much so that when his robbery of the nightclub is uncovered by the owner, and Paul is caught and beaten, Carla comes to his rescue, completing the robberies success by devising a means entirely unassisted herself, demonstrating an obvious new found savor of crime, no doubt discovered through the act.

My second exposure to Cassel was with a two-part 2008 remake of a 1984 historically accurate film accounts of one of France’s most notorious folk hero bank-robbers, burglars and ruthless cop-killers, Jacques Mesrine. Mesrine in real-life was considered a modern day Robin Hood figure and his widely publicized escapes and wanted statuses gained him popularity as a nationally recognized anti-establishment figure. Cassel would be best suited for this role, and the mythic proportion of Mesrine’s infamy depicted so precisely by Vincent Cassel would place him atop the list of bad boy actors in all history.

The first film of the 2008 two-parts, Mesrine: L’instinct de Mort (Killer Instinct) was based on an autobiographical book by Mesrine, initially being unpublished by a law preventing him from profiting from his crimes, but being published later by Gérard Lebovici, who was mysteriously killed in events surrounding its publication.

The second film, Mesrine: Public Enemy #1, was a detail of the criminal career, escapes and death of Jacques Mesrine. Comparisons have been made of the 2008 Mesrine depictions by Vincent Cassel to Al Pacino’s 1983 celebrated portrayal of fictional Cuban drug lord Tony Montoya in Scarface.

Cassel would win four awards for his 2008 depiction of Jacques Mesrine, the César Award for Best Actor, the Lumières Award for Best Actor, the Étoiles d’Or Award for Best Actor, and the Tokyo International Film Festival Award for Best Actor.

In 1996, while on the set of L’Appartement, Vincent met and eventually fell in love with the wonderfully talented actress Monica Bellucci, marrying in 1999 and working together with her on the production sets of six films including Doberman (1997), Méditerranées (1999), Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001), the controversial Irreversible (2002), Agents Secrets (2004) and French erotic/horror film Sheitan (2006) in which Bellucci made a cameo appearance. They have two daughters Deva and Léonie.

In all, Vincent Cassel has acted in over forty films, produced or co-produced no fewer than three and received six awards for Best Actor and Most Promising Actor, as well as nominations for four more awards. Cassel has been almost as prolific in his English film production as in French film. Vincent Cassel has performed in English speaking versions of the following: Hot Chocolate (1992), Award winning film Elizabeth (1998), The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999), Birthday Girl (2001), The Reckoning (2003), Renegade (Blueberry) (2004), Ocean’s Twelve (2004), Ocean’s Thirteen (2007), Derailed (2005), Eastern Promises (2007), Black Swan (2010), A Dangerous Method (2011), Trance (2013), Child 44 (2015), Partisan (2015), Tale of Tales (2015) and upcoming It’s Only the End of the World (2016)

Works Cited

  • Palmer, Tim (2011) Brutal Intimacy: Analyzing Contemporary French Cinema Wesleyan University Press, Middleton, Connecticut

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