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Interview: Vincent Cassel

French Star of ‘Mesrine’ Talks About Playing Real Life Gangster

Vincent Cassel (center) stars as infamous French gangster

Credit: Music Box Films

Above: Vincent Cassel (center) stars as infamous French gangster "Mesrine"


KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando speaks with actor Vincent Cassel about his new film Mesrine.


America has a long tradition of gangster films but so too does France. I speak with Vincent Cassel about playing a real life gangster in the two-part crime film “Mesrine." “Killer Instinct,” the first part, opens tomorrow at Landmark’s Hillcrest Cinemas. Part Two, “Public Enemy No. 1” is scheduled to open in September. Listen to my interview.

Actor Vincent Cassel has no illusions about Jacques Mesrine, the real life gangster he plays in a pair of upcoming films.

VINCENT CASSEL He was a terrible man what can I say. I can’t defend him.

But for an actor, that can be appealing.

VINCENT CASSEL: I have a tendency to think that when you portray baddies in movies they come out more human than good guys.

Finding the humanity in flawed and sometimes evil characters has been Cassel’s specialty in films like “Brotherhood of the Wolf,” “Eastern Promises,” and “Irreversible.” But for the character of Jacques Mesrine, Cassel had a personal connection.

VINCENT CASSEL: I remember exactly when he died because I grew up in the 18th district in Paris which is where he died. So then growing up I realized a lot of my friends were wearing t-shirts with his face, his name was quoted by rappers, his name would appear as tags made by graffiti artists so he was very much a popular figure especially in the projects.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Music Box Films

Gerard Depardieu and Vincent Cassel in "Mesrine"

Mesrine cultivated something of a Robin Hood persona even though he never gave anything back to the people.

VINCENT CASSEL: It’s kind of a magic trick that he managed to do. So the idea was to again do this magic trick with the audience, meaning not to hide anything from his personality.

That means we get to see Mesrine doing some horrible things. Sometimes his actions may seem justified like killing a pimp for disfiguring a prostitute. But other times, Mesrine can be abruptly terrifying as when he assaults his wife in front of their daughter.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Music Box Films

Vincent Cassel plays Jacques Mesrine.

As played by Cassel, Mesrine is a compelling character in part because we can never quite pigeonhole him. In an early burglary, he uses his wits rather than violence to escape. But later we see him foolishly trying to outrun dozens of Arizona cops on a dessert road with no where to run.

But no matter how many times Mesrine is arrested he always seems to escape and this infuriates the authorities. He’s defiant and claims no prison can hold him. At one point, though, he’s put in a maximum-security prison where he’s repeatedly tortured.

VINCENT CASSEL: He’s really a product of his times and that makes him somehow a political figure. It shows like the flaws of our society. And that’s what’s interesting about the whole story. It’s a snapshot of France in the 60s and 70s.

It’s a snapshot of a turbulent political time when criminals often claimed political motivation for their actions. In this respect, the European gangster film differs from its American counterpart. There’s a political context against which Mesrine’s story plays out. Groups like the Baader-Meinhof Gang and the Red Brigade claimed an idealistic foundation for their criminal activities. Mesrine does the same or at least pretends to. Cassel says it’s all a sham yet it effectively pushes people’s buttons and allows him to assume the persona of a rebel hero.

VINCENT CASSEL: Poor people really like him because he stands up, even though his political views are a mix of everything and a posture more than real beliefs but still people looked up at him as someone who was able to defy the government and the police.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Music Box Films

Vincent Cassel and Cecile De France take direction from Jean-François Richet.

Cassel succeeds in creating a complex character that rivets us for two movies.

VINCENT CASSEL: I guess at the end of the two movies what you think about the character represents you as an audience and I’ve noticed that some people started to kind of like him and felt guilty about it. Because he’s not a likable character. So if you feel something for him at this point I don’t know I think it raises a question. How can you like someone like that?

The answer lies mainly in Cassel’s cagey performance. He gives us a monster that we are both drawn to and repulsed by but we simply can’t take our eyes off of him.

Companion viewing: "The Baader-Meinhof Complex," "Le Samourai," "Breathless," "The Big Risk," "The Sicilian Clan"

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