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France's Cassel vies for US stardom as gangster 'Mesrine'

French film star Vincent Cassel's bravura portrayal of a murderous mobster seems likely to win him greater fame and critical acclaim here, as US critics lap up his performance in the biopic "Mesrine: Killer Instinct."

The 43-year-old Cassel, who made a name playing everything from tough-guy villains to down-and-out misfits, lends his roguish good looks to the part of notorious Gallic gangster Jacques Mesrine - and says he enjoyed every minute.

"I rather like feeling like an outsider," he told AFP in an interview at his elegant hotel suite on Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard. "I like making odd films that people don't always understand."

So far, many reviewers have been enthralled over the film, which opened last week in select North American theaters, two years after it first hit the screens in France.

National Public Radio's Bob Mondello last week wrote that Cassel's intensity was reminiscent of a "young Gerard Depardieu."

Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times praised the "magnetic physicality" displayed by Cassel.

The movie deals with the life of murderous outlaw Jacques Mesrine - France's "public enemy number one" during the 1970s.

The film, based on an autobiographical book written by the gangster while in prison, is the first of two installments of the movie, with the second part to be released this week under the title "Public Enemy Number One."

The film spans three decades in the life of Mesrine, who became infamous for fearless bank heists, daring jailbreaks and an uncanny ability to disguise his appearance to elude capture.

Born in December 1936 in the town of Clichy-la-Garenne on the Paris outskirts, Mesrine was fatally shot by police on the streets of the capital in November 1979.

Cassel, who received the 2009 Cesar Award - France's Academy award - for his portrayal of the bad guy, conceded America might not be an obvious market for the two-part movie. All the same, "I really wanted very much for it to be released here," he told AFP.

Not all reviews have been glowing. But even the Washington Post which last week lambasted the crime saga for resorting to "every cliche the genre has to offer" praised Cassel's "exceptional and committed performance."

Along with his Oscar-winning compatriot Marion Cotillard, he is one of the rare actors to enjoy flourishing careers in the United States as well as in Europe.

Cassel is well on the way to becoming one of France's most exportable and bankable stars, and the role of Mesrine likely will cement that status.

"It is a film that arrives at an important moment in my life," he said.

"I've reached my 40s, I've lost my father," he said speaking about Jean-Pierre Cassel, an acclaimed actor in his own right, who died in 2007.

However well "Killer Instinct" does with American filmgoers, Cassel knows it has catapulted him to new heights in the world of French cinema.

"With Mesrine, I've become a bit inescapable. I feel that I've gained a certain respectability, I seem to have gained a certain heft," he said.

His breakout role came a decade and a half ago in the acclaimed 1995 French film "La Haine" about troubled youth in a Paris ghetto. Since then he has had a number of gritty film roles including in "L'Appartement" alongside his now-wife, actress Monica Bellucci, among numerous other roles.

In this country, until now he has been best-known for his turn in Hollywood hits like "Ocean's Twelve" and "Ocean's Thirteen," in which he appears along movie A-listers Catherine Zeta-Jones and George Clooney.

Like many of Hollywood's best character actors, Cassel packed on several kilos (pounds) to play the part of the paunchy robber Mesrine.

His work in America by contrast has been less, well, weighty and Cassel said that suits him just fine.

"Not to downplay hard work, but it's important to have fun as well," he said. "It's in the process of having fun that one can learn alot about oneself."

The actor is to appear opposite Natalie Portman in Darren Aronofsky's thriller "Black Swan," with Natalie Portman, and in the film "Our Day Will Come," a social commentary on race and ethnic prejudice from director Romain Gavras, in which redheads are cast as an oppressed minority.

Both films will screen at this month's Toronto International Film Festival.

When choosing his projects, Cassel told AFP he is motivated not by the size of the payday, but by the quality of the script and above all, the artistic vision of the director.

"It has to be someone whom I respect, who inspires me, whom I admire," he said, adding he's not sure what comes next, but he would be intrigued by a future collaboration with the likes of directors Oliver Stone or Ridley Scott.

"With people like them, the playing field is a bit bigger," he said, "but it's still a game, and one that I do enjoy playing."