MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

Vincent Cassel on His Portrait of a Gangster

In gangster circles, here and abroad, there are three sure ways for a criminal to know he’s made the Big Time: 1) his mug shot is on display in post offices across the nation; 2) the cops and media have honored his nefarious achievements by giving him a cool nickname; and 3) he’s been awarded the title, Public Enemy No. 1, or has made the FBI’s 10-most-wanted list.

By the time an assault team of heavily armed Parisian police caught up with him on November 2, 1979, Jacques Mesrine had hit the aforementioned trifecta not only in France, but his notoriety had prompted manhunts in Canada and the United States, as well. His skill at disguising himself to avoid identification and arrest won him the sobriquet Man of a Thousand Faces. An unrepentant bad-ass and world-class blowhard, Mesrine routinely played the press and public like a violin, at least until a chronic inability to contain his violent urges and monstrous ego combined to spoil the love fest.

Like John Dillinger, this son of decidedly middle-class parents and veteran of the Algerian War robbed banks, escaped from jails, was blamed for several murders and enjoyed taunting authorities. Their legends have stoked the imaginations of dozens of writers and filmmakers. Both have been portrayed by the cream of their homelands’ acting crop, most recently Johnny Depp, in Public Enemies, and Vincent Cassel, in the biopic, Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1, the first installment of which opens Friday in select markets.

Also like the dapper Dillinger, Mesrine often wore a mustache. Unlike America’s most famous bank robber, though, Mesrine once sported one of the world’s most hideous mullet hairdos and mutton-chop sideburns even Elvis Presley might have avoided.

“C’mon, it was the ’70s,” reminds Cassel, in Los Angeles to promote Jean-Francois Richet’s diptych, which grabbed Cesars in three of 10 categories in which it was nominated, including Best Director and Best Actor. “Lots of men looked like that. I didn’t have to wear the hair style you saw in the mug shot, but I had to shave my head.” (He also was required to wear an Afro with a bushy Fu Manchu mustache, an Amish-style beard and glasses that ranged from sportif to downright geeky.

In person, the blue-eyed actor is extremely handsome and surprisingly tall. It’s difficult to imagine how his slender frame could accommodate another 44 pounds of flab, but, like Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull, there simply was no other way to do his character justice.

Casell knew he would have an easier time shedding the weight than he had gaining it, so the movie was shot in reverse chronological order. As it was, it spanned nine months and took place throughout France, as well as in Algeria, Spain, England, Quebec and the American Southwest. (“Mesrine actually was captured in Arkansas, but Monument Valley seemed more American.”)

Now 43, the actor can easily recall both Mesrine’s reign as a Public Enemy No. 1 and his very public demise. The gangster’s final comeuppance, which many observers still consider to be more of an outright assassination than arrest attempt, took place at a crowded intersection outside his family’s home.

“In 1978, Mesrine was voted the most famous celebrity in France,” recalled Cassel, son of prominent actor Jean-Pierre Cassel (La cérémonie, Prêt-à-Porter) and journalist mother, Sabine Litique. “I was 12 when he was killed … just down the stairs from our apartment at Porte de Clignancourt, really. My brother came home from soccer and said he heard shots and that a gangster was killed.

“The neighborhood was surrounded by police, who displayed his body as if he were an outlaw in the Old West.”

Much of the project was filmed at or near the actual locations of Mesrine’s holdups and hideouts. Even after 30 years, people who witnessed the crimes or remember seeing the gangster still live in the neighborhoods and would regale the cast and crew with stories. Some of Mesrine’s old cronies approached Cassel, as well.

“Between his former accomplices, ex-wives and the cops who chased him, some 15 books have been written about Mesrine,” he said. “We quickly realized that each one re-wrote the story a little, including Mesrine himself. So, where is the truth and where is the fantasy?

“It’s very hard to know.”

At the time of Mesrine’s death, the film rights to his 1977 autobiography, L’Instinct de mort, were held by Jean-Paul Belmondo. Unfortunately, Jean-Luc Godard turned in a script that reminded no one of their collaborations on Breathless and Pierrot le fou, and Belmondo was forced to pull the rug out from under the project.

Cassel’s name has been attached to a Mesrine biopic for most of the last decade. It originally was in the hands of Barbet Schroeder, whose approach was deemed too flattering to the outlaw. Minus an account of the man’s many serious flaws, Cassel thought, Mesrine’s story wouldn’t be as accurate or interesting.
“People considered him to be a hero, but he wasn’t,” Cassel noted.
He considered the script forwarded by Richet and screenwriter Abdel Raouf Dafri to be more balanced. With that in hand, Cassel set out to help the producers gather the European equivalent of some $50 million for the movie. That amount may sound unremarkable here, but, in France, it was a veritable fortune.

“It was a hard sell at first, because Mesrine wasn’t a likable guy and some people who were around in 1979 strongly advised us not to do it,” allowed Cassel, who’s primarily known in America as the voice of Monsieur Hood in Shrek, Francois Toulour in the Ocean’s series, and Kirill in Eastern Promises.

Richert’s previous feature was the 2005 remake of Assault on Precinct 13, a movie that was long on action but not terribly deep. Dafri, whose screenplay for A Prophet had yet to be shot, also represented something of a question mark. Even so, Cassel’s participation made it easier to convince such internationally known stars as Gérard Depardieu, Cécile De France, Mathieu Amalric and Ludivine Sagnier to come along for the ride.

The biggest hurdle facing Mesrine in its belated release here via Music Box, however, could be the bifurcated format. Steven Soderbergh’s two-part Che did practically no business and other simultaneously shot multi-parters – Kill Bill, Clint Eastwood’s Iwo Jima couplet and sequels to Lord of the Rings and Back to the Future– benefited from being released further apart from each other than a few hours or a week.

If Americans can get past the format, they’ll find a movie that isn’t all that different from Mann’s Public Enemies and Heat, and countless other action pictures featuring a charismatic protagonist, desperate cops, wild car chases, daring escapes and gorgeous molls. More to the point, however, Mesrine harkens back to a long line of classic French film policier and film noir titles, which were inspired by low and mid-budget American crime thrillers of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s.

Cassel cited Jean-Pierre Melville’s B as a direct influence on Mesrine, but he could just as well have pointed to the director’s Le Samouraï and B, or any number of noirs by Jules Dassin, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jacques Becker, Rene Clement, Robert Bresson, Louis Malle, Claude Chabrol and Jacques Deray.

Certainly, in such edgy films as La Haine and The Crimson Rivers, Cassel has already established himself as a worthy successor to such French genre stars as Lino Ventura, Jean Gabin, Bernard Blier, Louis Jouvet, Jean Servais, Yves Montant, Alain Deion, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Daniel Auteuil, Belmondo and Depardieu. The broken nose he got filming The Crimson Rivers put him in good company, as well.

“My father is best known for his light comedies,” he’s said, “and I’m best known for crazy bad guys with short tempers.”

The next generation of Cassels, daughters Leonie and Deva, shares a gene pool that includes not only Jean-Pierre Cassel, who died before he could appear in Mesrine with his son, but also an opera singer in great-grandmother Louise-Marguerite Fabrègue. Besides being one of the sexiest women on the planet, their mother, actress Monica Bellucci, has successfully made the transition from runway model to Cesar-nominated actor. Mom and Dad have appeared together in Sheitan, Secret Agents, Irreversible, Brotherhood of the Wolf, Méditerranées, Pleasure (And Its Little Inconveniences), Compromis, Dobermann, As You Want Me and L’appartement. Cassel anticipates working with his wife, again, in a movie set during Mardi Gras in Rio de Janeiro.

After 22 years in the business, his only experience at the helm came in 1997 with the short, Shabbat Night Fever. The experience didn’t do much for Cassel.

“Directing isn’t a visceral thing for me,” he recalled, with a laugh. “It’s just not that important to me. As a producer, I get the director, work on scripts and find money … everything from A-to-Z.”

Co-starring with Bellucci would be enough for most actors.

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So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

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