From his rugged look in his debut in La Haine to his suave roles as the French mystery man in Hollywood films like Black Swan and Ocean’s 12, Vincent Cassel has had many lives on screen. Let’s revisit his best French and American movies.
This is where it all began. Vincent Cassel was 29 when La Haine was first screened at the 95th Cannes Film Festival. Although it was already his seventh film, it’s only then that he became a well-known face of French cinema. Vincent Cassel had always been in the world of entertainment and especially cinema. His dad was a renowned French actor – Jean-Pierre Cassel. His mother – Sabine Cassel – was also very well-connected as the editor-in-chief of the food pages of the US edition of Elle. It’s no surprise that his brother and sister also pursued a career in the entertainment industry. Vincent Cassel – often compared to Robert de Niro and Al Pacino – for his intensity and uncompromising style of acting, studied at their alma mater, the Actor’s Studio in New York.
After landing a few roles, it was his friendship and collaboration with director Matthieu Kassovitz that really launched his career, and the one of Kassovitz. Their first film together Métisse was released three years before La Haine. The movie was praised by critics and received a few awards, as well as two nominations at the César for Matthieu Kassovitz. So, when the French director announced that he was working on a new movie, the Cannes Film Festival asked to get dibs on the first screening. Filmed entirely in black and white, La Haine was inspired by the true story of Makomé M’Bowolé, an emblematic case of police violence towards the suburban youth in France in the 90’s. With such a hot topic, Matthieu Kassovitz and Vincent Cassel knew they would make headlines, something they cultivated throughout their career. The film won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival and went on to be nominated 11 times at the César Award, winning best French movie of the year. La Haine was one of those rare films both loved by the critics and the public. Over 2 million French people saw it in theaters, making it one of the biggest box-office hits of the year. An incredible achievement for a movie whose budget was only 2.5 million euros!
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Two years after La Haine came Dobermann, another unwavering French movie. This crime film directed by Jan Kounen is highly influenced by the work of Quentin Tarantino. Excessive, violent, comics-influenced, there’s a lot of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction (and even a bit of Kill Bill which had not yet been released at that point) in Dobermann. It tells the story of a gun-loving bank robber and his unusual gang being chased by a rogue cop following a bloody heist. It was the second film casting together Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci. She plays the role of his deaf and bad-ass side-kick. The movie really cemented their relationship as French cinema’s power couple! A sort of Brangelina, without all the drama and tabloid covers (yet). The movie is not for sensitive souls, but its energy and aesthetic will surely satisfy many.
Les Rivières pourpres (The Crimson Rivers)
Five years after La Haine, the collaboration between Vincent Cassel and director Matthieu Kassovitz took a new turn with Les Rivières pourpres. This time, both were established figures of cinema in France. They were given the adaptation of the best-seller crime novel from Jean-Chistophe Grangé. Although the reviews from the press were mixed, the movie was another hit for the duo Cassel-Kassovitz. Three million French spectators went to see the movie in theaters. It was in 2000 the tenth biggest box-office hit in France among films like Sixth Sense, Gladiator and Toy Story 2. A complex movie (too complex would say Vincent Cassel after seeing the many edits of the final cut), it creates a fascinating and eerie ‘Lynchian’ atmosphere. Oppressing, tense, dark, mysterious, Les Rivières pourpres is undoubtedly one of the best French crime thrillers ever made. It sadly is the third and last film Matthieu Kassovitz and Vincent Cassel worked on together. Their friendship took a hit and escalated to a fight in front of a night club in 2008 and many a diss at each others’ careers have occurred since.
Check out TV5MONDE’s movie line-up for more French crime movies.
Before the release of Ocean’s Twelve, Vincent Cassel was considered an actor of auteur and avant-garde film in France. So it was a bit of a surprise to see him cast in Steven Soderbergh’s action flick. Vincent Cassel played the role of the mysterious robber François Toulour. Vincent Cassel’s performance as the arrogant, snarky yet classy French thief was absolutely delightful, although it won’t help some of the clichés attached to the French men! His character made such a mark in the franchise that he was brought back for a couple more scenes in Ocean’s Thirteen.
The two-part crime movie is definitely the most famous and most loved movie of Vincent Cassel’s career. Why? Because the French actor plays Jacques Mesrine, France’s most renowned gangster. Mesrine, nicknamed “The Man of a Thousand Faces” or “Robin Hood” was a charismatic figure of the 70’s in France. Named public enemy number 1 by police, he robbed countless banks, luxury shops, hotels and was even rumored to work for the French secret service at some point. Incredibly, he managed to escape twice from prison making him a famous figure in France, despite the killings he’d been involved with. Jacques Mesrine was a perfect role for someone who received training at the Actor’s studio. In the two movies based on the life of the robber, Vincent Cassel is Mesrine. To become the egocentric and violent bank robber, Vincent Cassel gained 45 pounds ahead of the shooting and is unrecognizable. It took him 9 months to lose these extra pounds after the shootings! At first the French actor refused to play the role because he thought the script was too black and white. It’s only when he was presented a more nuanced script years later that he accepted to take on the role of such a controversial figure. “Doing a movie about a hero who isn’t one is interesting. But only if it’s done right. (...) With the two-part script, the screenwriter had found a way to show the darkness and the paradox of the character”, said Vincent Cassel on why he changed his mind in playing the gangster. If you love crime stories based on true stories, this is definitely a movie for you.
Three years after Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 13 and David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, Hollywood called Vincent Cassel once again. Darron Aronofsky was writing an ambitious adaptation of the Swan Lake opera with Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis and Winona Ryder. The movie needed a tough, complex and ultimately abusive and sleazy French ballet teacher to push the dancers to their limit. Once again, Vincent Cassel’s raw energy was perfect for the tone of Black Swan. Contrary to Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel didn’t have to go through months of ballet training as he’s rarely seen dancing. His performance was none the less well-received for the charisma and magnetism he brought to the character.
Mon roi (My King)
In recent years, Vincent Cassel has been alternating between big budget comedies and independent award-winning French movies. This one falls into the latter category. Behind the camera of Mon roi is Maïwenn, who had just won the Cannes Film Festival Jury prize for Polisse. For her new film, she was looking to film the romance and separation of an everyday girl with a tenebrous, fun, but ultimately typical bad guy. A role she wrote with Vincent Cassel in mind as “he is flamboyant, handsome, sexy”, said the actress in an interview for Eye For Film. His talent as a method actor, in the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis or Robert de Niro, was exactly what she was looking for. “He has been involved in doing so much in acting school that he is used to forgetting the whole crew on the set. He is a genius for that. When I would say ‘Cut!’ he was always like ‘Oh, okay’, and he suddenly would realize we were doing a movie. He was so involved“. Vincent Cassel is fascinating as Georgio, the charismatic, confident man you want in your group of friends – until you slowly realize that behind closed doors he’s an abusive, menacing boyfriend. Vincent Cassel was nominated at the César Awards for best actor but didn’t win, but Emmanuel Bercot, his co-star, received the César for best actress.
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Hors normes (The Specials)
This movie went a bit under the radar outside in France and it really is a shame. The dramedy was directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, the duo behind the box-office hit The Intouchables with Omar Sy. The directors found again the perfect balance between emotion and laugh in this story of two unconventional carers of children and adolescents with autism. When the movie was shown at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, it was praised for its two leads Reda Kateb and Vincent Cassel. Screen International, the publication of the international film industry, talked about “Cassel delivering one of his best performances in years” while French newspaper Le Parisien raved about the French actor “astonishing as he plays against type”. The movie, entirely filmed handheld, has a sincerity that can’t be ignored. Both directors, who had worked as summer-camp instructors, had come across charities working with children with autism and had always wanted to do a movie around the topic. They spent two years with charities to prepare for the movie and most scenes are inspired by true events. Make sure you get the tissue box, and get ready to find hope again in humanity again with Hors Normes!
Juste la fin du monde (It’s only The End Of The World)
For his 6th film, Xavier Dolan reunited an all-star cast. The late Gaspard Ulliel, Nathalie Baye, Léa Seydoux, Marion Cotillard and Vincent Cassel. This emotional drama about a dysfunctional family is maybe not Xavier Dolan’s best film but it’s worth the watch for its actors. The story follows a young writer, announcing his upcoming death to his family, which escalates in a series of conflicts. Vincent Cassel surprises again for his range of emotions and for the vulnerability he brings on screen, something we rarely see of him.
Astérix et obélix, l’empire du milieu (Asterix and Obelix: The Middle Kingdom)
This is a stretch maybe because the movie is not out yet. But we can’t wait to see Vincent Cassel, who has always cultivated his image as someone very confident, dare we say egocentric, in the role of Caesar. It’s also funny to think that in a previous adaptation, Monica Belluci held the role of Cleopatra… Given the star-studded cast, there’s no doubt that the comedy is on its way to become a cult film. The movie is directed by Guillaume Canet and also stars Gilles Lellouche, Marion Cotillard, Pierre Richard, Jonathan Cohen, Angèle, Philippe Katerine and many more.
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