France's Sexiest Leading Man Speaks

A mesmerizing chat with the star of gangster epic Mesrine

He has added scruffy, soulful-eyed ambience to films like Oceans Twelve and Eastern Promises, but in America, we don't really know Vincent Cassel, the daring French actor who is an enigma wrapped in a pushed button of his own making.

Well, a double dose of the big lapdog is coming to the arthouse with crème fraiche on top, and I can promise you a transatlantic love affair will start the second he starts shooting up the screen.

I'm talking about Mesrine (2008), the two-part gangster epic about the colorful lawbreaker from the '60s and '70s who robbed banks, kidnapped an old mogul, and truly loved his children.

With his whores, media manipulations, codes of honor, delusions, and tantrums, Cassel's Jacques Mesrine is a mesmerizingly complex figure who delivers all the rage and twisted glamour you'd ever want from two gangster films.

Mesrine: Killer Instinct (Part 1), which chronicles his glittery rise to felony, opens on August 27, and Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 (Part 2), in which he flourishes as a "man of a thousand faces" and almost as many prison breaks, starts in New York/L.A. on September 3.

Our tête-à-tête in a trendy hotel last week has been carefully transcribed here for vous:

Me: Hi, Vincent. Mesrine won the César awards for director and actor (for you), but not for picture. What gives?

Cassel: In France, it's a very small world. We still have the nouvelle vague complex. It has to look poor to have a real value. Séraphine won Best Picture.

Me: I guess that's the Hurt Locker of France. Speaking of your country's values, the Mesrine saga is way better known over there than here.

Cassel: Yes. He still has the Robin Hood image there, even though he never gave to the poor. He's still sympathetic, even when he's not.

Me: So they must have been orgasming over this film.

Cassel: The second it was announced, my garbage man asked, "When's it coming out?"

Me: You have a great screen rapport with Gérard Depardieu, who plays your gangland mentor. How did it feel to call him a fat man?

Cassel: I loved it, actually. He's someone I've long admired. We're both generational actors. I had a bunch of opportunities to work with him before, but the movies were no good. Alain Delon was supposed to play that part, but it didn't work out, and I'm glad it didn't.

Me: And how did working with Depardieu turn out to be? Nouvelle vermouth?

Cassel: He's a monster. If he feels you're weak, he'll eat you alive. You have to make your point early on with him. The moment he respects you, you can not only have fun, but you can experience wonderful things together.

Me: I'm glad you didn't end up squeezed onto his plate. Do you feel you have a character actor's face or a leading man's face—or both?

Cassel: I think I've got a strange face. But I've learned it's not how you look, it's what you do with what you have. I can be handsome, ugly, charming, or scary.

Me: I can only be scary. Have American movies used that face well?

Cassel: Is Darren Aronofsky a typical American? I'm not so sure. David Cronenberg? Even Soderbergh has a strange persona in the industry. I did Elizabeth (1998)for Shekhar Kapur, who's Indian. The more I go on, the more I realize that the term "American movie" doesn't mean much.

Me: Well, you always get cast in the more artistic American movies.

Cassel: Except for the Oceans films. And even there, it's a big movie, but it sort of doesn't seem like a big movie. Soderbergh works the lights and cameras, and it's a friendly atmosphere. I feel I haven't been in a really American movie yet.

Me: Consider yourself lucky. I loved your character in Elizabeth. Would you call him a drag queen or a transvestite?

Cassel: Very open-minded, let's say.

Me: But my favorite film of yours was Irreversible, the chronologically backward rape-and-vengeance drama with you and your hot wife, Monica Bellucci. Did that push you to the limit?

Cassel: Gaspar Noé is one of the best directors. There's a purity there—he's not working for fame or money. When we started on that film, we only had six pages. For the last scene, Gaspar said, "Go ahead. It can be two minutes to 20 minutes." That was how long the camera could shoot. We went for 20 minutes.

Me: What part do you play in Aronofsky's Black Swan?

Cassel: Someone based on George Balanchine, the director of the New York City Ballet.

Me: So he's gay?

Cassel: He was not gay. He was the only one not gay! He would use sexuality to direct and manipulate his female dancers. He could be sadistic.

Me: Sounds a little gay. And in Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method?

Cassel: I play Otto Gross, who would have been the spiritual son of Freud. He was totally crazy, coked out, fucking everybody, having kids with everybody. He would never repress anything.

Me: Another stretch. [Laughs.] Thanks, Vincent. I love your smirk in the Mesrine poster there against the wall.

Cassel: In France, it was a gun pointing at the audience, but you can't do that here. We also had me bleeding in a Jesus-like pose, but you can't do that here, either.

Me: They're so serious about religion here for some reason.

Cassel: You're a young country!

The Squid and the Whale of a Time

We are practically a toddler of a nation, and yet we have so much going on culturally! Last week, I was enthralled by the Flying Karamazov Brothers' mixture of precision stunts and anarchic humor in their 4Play show at the Minetta Lane Theatre, especially when the oldest "brother" agreed to juggle three objects contributed by the audience. He ended up with a squid, a pie, and a box covered with Crisco. "The squid is the easy one," he remarked, objects flying, and another brother chimed in, "That's not nice. It's a perfectly respectable squid."

Later, the guys dazzled again by tossing bowling pins back and forth with a coordination that had the crowd watching in silent awe. "You could hear a pin drop," quipped a Karamazov.

I juggled sea life, casinos, and rock stars in Atlantic City, which just sent us down to prove there's some nouvelle vague realness there beyond the glitz and gambling. First, they took us on a cruise boat out to the ocean, where I looked for dolphins (if not squid) amid the "dancing waters" of two seasick customers cross-vomiting on the lower deck. There was a less dangerous pool party at the Chelsea Hotel, a non-gaming establishment where the lack of clanking brings some sanity—and even a Miami-ish feel—to the casino area.

And then came the glitz: a Boardwalk Hall concert by the Black Eyed Peas, whom I always thought were a band but are more like a choreographed dance troupe pumping out anthemy pop songs with hip-hop breaks and lots of repetition and spelling for the hard of hearing.

It's like if the cast of the old kiddie show Zoom was abducted by Jame Gumb but crawled up out of the death pit and found the acid, sequins, and vocoder. The songs with the strongest melodies sound lifted from "Like a Prayer" and "Torn," but Fergie is entertainingly unself-conscious, will.i.am. does a hot old-school DJ set, and the concert's robo-flash made me hope they're only calling this The E.N.D. World tour because their Mayan calendar had a typo. And now, back to my calamari, my pie, and, especially, my Crisco.

musto@villagevoice.com

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