Public Enemy #1: Vincent Cassel as Jacques Mesrine
French gangster Jacques Mesrine was notorious for robbing banks, breaking out of prison, and hiding behind ingenious disguises. Meet this real-life Man of a Thousand Faces in Jean-Francois Richet's diptych biopic.
After serving in the Algerian War in the 1950s, Jacques Mesrine became an internationally-known fugitive over the next two decades, robbing banks and kidnapping billionaires in Canada, the U.S., and his homeland. His particular survival skills included elaborate disguises—he was known as the Man of a Thousand Faces—and escape: he masterminded his way out of a penitentiary, a courtroom, and a prison, each in its own spectacular way. He was eventually gunned down in Paris by a police task force created just for him in 1979, leaving behind a string of glamorous women and several children.
The two pictures trace different stages of Mesrine’s life: Killer Instinct covers the Algerian War through his gangster days in the 1960s, and Public Enemy #1 considers his life as a “celebrity”—Mesrine penned a bestselling autobiography called Death Instinct during a 1977 prison stay, which attracted the media, whom he teased and charmed for much of his remaining life.
We recently caught up with the very charismatic Cassel to discuss the film, his dramatic weight gain for the part—in which he ages over 20 years—and his take on the career of Gérard Depardieu.
Tribeca: How did you get involved with the project?
Vincent Cassel: I got involved about 9 years ago now, when the producer Thomas Langmann came to see me and asked me to be a part of it. He read the book when he was 13 in boarding school, and he decided that one day he would be a producer and make two films about the life of Jacques Mesrine. He’s a pretty good friend of mine—he’s the son of the great French producer Claude Berri.
So Thomas came and asked me to do it, and we got involved with one director, but he turned out not to be the right for the job—he wanted to make a hero out of Mesrine, and there’s no point to making two movies about this guy if you treat him like a hero, which he wasn’t really.
The interesting I think are the paradoxes and the contradictions that the films raise—because he’s a violent racist who’s really violent to women, but at the same time he’s really brave, he keeps his word. It’s a mix of all those things that makes him an interesting characater.
Tribeca: In the audience, it’s hard, because we kind of want to root for Mesrine, but at the same time, he’s quite cruel and at times hateful (especially with his parents, and with his wife). Do you think he was always like that, or did war affect him?
Vincent Cassel: Well, I think war affects everybody. But that’s not enough of a reason for him to become what he became. Even though, still today, not one of the murders he’s been accused of has been proven, which gives us a little bit of mystery.
Tribeca: How much did you know about Mesrine before? Is it something that in France everyone just knows about?
Vincent Cassel: Yes, everybody knows about him, but in a very superficial way. When I was kid I heard the name before, when I was around 10 or 11—but the day I became really aware of who he was was the day of his death, like most people, I suppose.
Tribeca: You were how old?
Vincent Cassel: I was 12. And he got killed in my neighborhood—I’m from the 18th [Arrondisement, in Paris], near Montmartre, and it’s pretty close, a walkable distance. My younger brother was there when he got shot! He was coming back from the soccer field, and he said, “Ahhhh! I was in the street; we had to lie on the floor, we heard gunshots, and they killed a very famous gangster!”
We turned on the TV, and we see in primetime, 8:00, his body exposed in the street. It was a very hard-core statement from the government that nobody should mess around with them.
And then being a teenager, a lot of my friends were wearing T-shirts with his face, every rap song would quote him, graffiti artists would use his name—he was kind of this subculture icon.
Tribeca: You age 20 years in the films—and you gained 45 pounds! How did that process work?
Vincent Cassel: I knew that it was impossible to gain weight while we were filming—
Tribeca: Because you work so hard?
Vincent Cassel: Yeah, and the stress of filming. Plus, I’m a skinny guy, so it’s harder to keep the weight on than to lose it. So what we decided to do—and it was the only way to do it if we didn’t want to use prosthetics—was that for three months I ate and ate and ate and just sat on my bed watching things and studying the character. And then when I was fat enough we started—we filmed backwards from the death to the war in Algeria.
Tribeca: Was that difficult to do?
Vincent Cassel: No, people don’t always realize, but you never really shoot in order. Plus, each day is a scene, and you concentrate on that, knowing what happens before and afterwards. The important thing is the instant. It’s not like, “I can’t play that scene because I haven’t been through that [other scene].” I’m sure some people might make that into a problem, but if you just relax, it’s fine.
Tribeca: In a lot of ways, the film felt like an American 70s film with Gene Hackman—like The Conversation or The French Connection. Was that a conscious choice?
Vincent Cassel: Well, I guess we talked about The French Connection while we were preparing the movie. And we talked about the [Jean-Pierre] Melville movies, Jean-Paul Belmondo, that era of movies. But then again, while that works for the feeling of the movie, the technique of shooting is actually different from one film to the other. One is more classical, with the split screens, and then the 2nd one is more about the craziness of Mesrine—the camera is much closer to me, the director wanted me to fill the frame with my new body. [laughs]
So there were a lot of different influences, but then once you’re doing it, you have to kind of forget about everything, really.
Tribeca: You have some terrific co-stars: the three women are all fantastic, and I loved seeing Gerard Depardieu as the French Don Corleone. What can you tell us about him?
Vincent Cassel: I can tell you that I have a lot of admiration for Gerard. Not only is he a great actor, but he really represents his generation. The movies with him when he was young—he was like nothing else. And he had that career—1900—I think now he works too much, and you see him more or less in everything. This guy can’t stop working—he’s done more than 100 movies, which is much too much, but that’s his problem. [laughs]
Tribeca: Did you know him before?
Vincent Cassel: Yeah, I interviewed him once, as part of a promotion for a movie. I wanted to get close to him, and we had opportunities to work together since, but it was always on stupid movies, and I refused; I was waiting for the right situation, to have the perfect jewel with him. And that scene [in Killer Instinct]—where I have to be very insulting to [Gerard’s character] was very interesting to me.
Vincent Cassel: I haven’t seen it completed yet, but just the bits and pieces that I’ve seen, I’m already pretty proud. If you want to talk about influences in style and storytelling—it would be something like the first Polanski films, or the early Cronenberg movies, that kind of grittiness… It’s dark, it’s kind of scary, it’s a thriller, but at the same time it’s about ballet, so there are beautiful moments of dancing. Plus, the guy who did all the choreography for the movie is honestly one of the most talented choreographers today. What he does is still classical, but it’s like nothing else you’ve ever seen. I’ve seen ballet of him in Paris and New York, and it’s very original.
So, we’re opening the Venice Film Festival, we’re going to Toronto, the movie is going to be released the 1st of December… and if you’re excited, I can tell you I’m even more excited than you!