JACQUES MESRINE, THE GALLIC GOODFELLA
By Stephen Applebaum
Jacques Mesrine may not be a household name in the UK but in France he is an icon for the current generation of rebellious youth.
In the 1970s, he robbed, killed and kidnapped his way to the title of public enemy no. 1. His disguises earned him the nickname “man of a thousand faces”. But even as he hid from the police, Mesrine taunted the French authorities by giving interviews to journalists and appearing regularly, half-disguised, on the cover of Paris Match. His luck eventually ran out, however, and he was gunned down on a busy Paris street, in 1979, in an officially-sanctioned operation that remains controversial.
Since his death, Mesrine has morphed into a Che Guevara-like figure for some of France's young. Hip-hop kids sport his image on T-shirts while rappers reference him. His exploits have, inevitably, inspired movies, the latest of which, Mesrine – released in two instalments, Killer Instinct and Public Enemy – stormed the French box office last year and earned its electrifying star, Vincent Cassel, a Cesar for best actor (the French equivalent of an Oscar).
When I meet Cassel in London, he is quick to distance himself from Mesrine's admirers. “I am not a Mesrine fan,” he states emphatically. “I'm interested in Mesrine because I'm an actor. But I don't think, 'Oh, he's so great! I always wanted to be Mesrine!'”
Cassel's volatile skinhead in his 1995 breakthrough film, La Haine, might have idolised the gangster. But when the actor was presented with a script that softened Mesrine, and a director, the veteran film-maker Barbet Schroeder, who wanted to portray the cops as the bad guys, he balked. “It was like, he's not that racist. He's not that violent. He's not that bad with the girls. But he's still really brave and funny,” remembers Cassel. “I said, 'No, I'm not going to be in a four-hour movie to say that.' The interesting thing about the character is that he's looked up to as a hero and he is not,” suggests Cassel. “How did he do that? Why? That's what I wanted to explore, more than just being a Robin Hood.”
Unable to change the film's direction, he removed himself. “But it was a bluff,” Cassel admits, smiling. “Maybe it's very pretentious, but I always thought this movie would not be made without me.”
He was right: after Schroeder dropped out, Mesrine was re-booted, this time with people from Cassel's generation – the film director Jean-Francois Richet and screenwriter Abdel Raouf Dafri – in creative control. “The movie became what I dreamt about from the beginning,” he enthuses. “Meaning that we needed a script where you didn't know what to think from one scene to the other. We never judge the character, we just show everything. What you think about the character at the end of the movie reflects you as a person.”
Although Cassel never knew Mesrine personally, for anyone who likes playing the Six Degrees of Separation game there is nonetheless a tenuous link between him and the cocky criminal: Gerard Lebovici, the agent of Vincent's actor father, Jean-Pierre, adopted Mesrine's daughter, Sabrina, and gave Mesrine's family money when he was in prison.
"Ah, yes,” says Cassel, briefly baffled by the idea of a connection. “Lebovici died [in 1984] with four bullets in the forehead in a square shape,” he recalls. “This is an un-honoured contract. He was a very smart man, very powerful, and very dark. He had the life of movie-making and on the other side he was the publisher of revolutionary books. The only thing we know is that in his agenda, the latest meeting he had was with F. B., and people thought about Francois Besse [Mesrine's sometime accomplice, played in the film by Mathieu Amalric].”
Playing Mesrine was a gift for the actor whose own chameleon-like ability to dramatically transform himself on screen initially allowed him to keep the press at bay. Marrying Monica Bellucci, whom he met when they worked together on 1996's The Apartment, has since made him one half of Europe's most glamorous couple. But even now Cassel says he can control the attention.
The “problem”, he says, is television. “When people just read about you, you still have a certain kind of distance. When they see you on talk shows and game shows, then you totally lose, because you're becoming their buddy.” His solution is to disappear between projects. “If you have another life, if you're not just this guy on TV, and you have other ways to fulfil yourself, then it's okay. It's not that bad.”
Cassel's profile will almost certainly rise on the back of Mesrine. He has already appeared in films outside France, of course, including Ocean's Twelve, Birthday Girl and Eastern Promises, and for many observers he is already the Gerard Depardieu of his generation. Cassel himself frequently cites the legendary actor as an inspiration, although he's also accused him in interviews of squandering his talent. They have some memorable scenes together in Mesrine, but I wonder if Cassel's comments made things awkward on set. “I can talk freely about this because I had this discussion with him,” he says surprisingly.
"He's really fascinating, but at the same time it looks like his desire's . . .” Waned? “I don't want to be rude but it's like when you have a hard-on: it's not normal, it's magical, and one day you won't have it anymore. So it's not forever. And if you spoil yourself, almost prostitute yourself, doing things for the money, at some point you don't respect what you do anymore.”
Cassel insists that he still admires Depardieu. However, he was not so in awe of him that he did not comment when the actor forgot his lines. “Of course I'm rude,” he laughs. “It doesn't change anything about the respect that I have for him, but if you play tennis in Wimbledon with somebody, if the guy didn't prepare, f**k him!”
He hopes they will work together again. In the meantime, though, he is building a house in Rio, preparing for a shoot in Australia, and has recently finished work on a road movie about two alienated redheads. Clearly there is no sign of Cassel's hunger waning. And if it ever does, he knows what he'll do.
"I will disappear. My desire will then come back and when I'm on the set I'm there because I want to be there. Not because I have to be.”
Mesrine: Killer Instinct is out now; Mesrine: Public Enemy No.1 is released 28 August
This story first appeared in The Big Issue, August 3-9, 2009