As one of the best known French actors working today, Vincent Cassel has a penchant for playing compelling characters driven by a deeper desire. Sometimes this desire involves a woman (or women), sometimes it is linked to money and power, and other times it is merely just a drive to possess the world and everything in it.
Cassel is an elemental actor in the sense that there is little pretense or put-on to his performances. You get the feeling that there is quite a bit of himself in virtually every character he inhabits, which is the hallmark of many of the most iconic actors of all time. His proficiency is on full display in the following films, which run the gamut of b-movie horror, actions films, arthouse cinema, and historical features.
10. A Dangerous Method
Part of director David Cronenberg’s notable second act, A Dangerous Method details the birth of modern psychiatry via the collaboration of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Cassel plays fellow psychoanalyst Otto Gross, whose ideas had a profound impact on Jung in terms of personality types (namely extraversion and introversion).
Although the subject matter of A Dangerous Method is certainly interesting, the execution falls flat. This is particularly true in terms of the performances, ranging from uncharacteristically bland portrayals by Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender (Freud and Jung, respectively), to an excruciating performance courtesy of Keira Knightley as a sought after patient.
While only on screen for a short period of time, Cassel brings to life the hedonism and anarchic nature of Gross, who is said to have given birth to the counterculture movement of the late 20th century. Consequently, his performance is really the only bright spot in an otherwise dull and unengaging movie.
9. The Apartment
Taking a stark turn from his performance in La Haine, The Apartment is a French romantic thriller featuring misunderstandings and deliberate misdirection. Cassel portrays Max, a writer in pursuit of the one who got away despite his engagement to another woman.
The film is far more complex than it initially seems, with a number of twists and turns laid bare through flashbacks that illustrate the true state of things.
Unlike other films on this list, Cassel’s characterization in The Apartment is much less rooted in existential turmoil. Essentially a hopeless romantic, he is manipulated by his emotions as he attempts to find his one true love Lisa (former wife and frequent co-star Monica Bellucci).
With call backs to the films of Hitchcock and Brian De Palma (although those comparisons might be a bit generous), this film is heavy on the more mysterious elements, while also being a decidedly French undertaking. It’s deeper than your standard romantic fare, and Cassel’s dynamic performance renders it eminently watchable.
It’s interesting that Cassel tends to be cast as distasteful characters in non-French movies. While he fits the bill of leading man in a variety of different roles, when he is being sold to American audiences he is usually relegated to unsavory characters.
This may speak to his decidedly Gallic looks or his accent (American audiences are typically only wooed by British or Australian accents). Whatever the reason, Cassel lends more to these characters than other actors could muster, although they do provide less opportunity to express his expansive range.
8. The Crimson Rivers
If Mesrine is France’s answer to Scarface, The Crimson Rivers is its take on Se7en. A horrific murder unites two police men, one an impulsive low-rent cop (Cassel), who is contrasted by the more urbane and accomplished detective (Jean Reno). Their work on the case uncovers a disturbing plot involving an incestuous college in a remote town and a few mutilated victims.
It may be a bit surprising to learn that French cinema isn’t all sensual art films and that some filmmakers tread to same trope-laden waters as their American counterparts. Accordingly, The Crimson Rivers would be right at home among the pantheon of grim and disturbing cop movies that seem to have become a genre to themselves.
For his part, Cassel imbues the character of Officer Kerkerian with same sort of anarchic attitude exemplified by Mel Gibson throughout the Lethal Weapon franchise. He is essentially playing off Reno’s straight-man, which is the integral component of virtually every buddy cop flick ever created. Of course by the end they are able to establish mutual respect, and even find the time to throw in a few quips along the way.
While Cassel is best known for his work in drama and action, he is not above appearing in a good old-fashioned horror schlock-fest. 2006’s Sheitan is such a film, wherein a bunch of misguided youths are led to a country home by an enigmatic and beautiful girl. Upon arriving they meet the dimwitted farm hand Joseph (played by Cassel), who becomes increasingly creepier as the movie progresses.
Taking a cue from American slasher flicks, Sheitan is a horror-lover’s delight. The film hits all the right notes, and Cassel is particularly amusing as the unhinged, Satan-loving farm hand. Things become even more bizarre as the situation develops, leading to a hilarious yet somewhat disturbing ending that perfectly punctuates this film.
It’s also a pleasant surprise to see Cassel delve so far out of his comfort zone, especially considering his upper-echelon status in French cinema. Unlike big league American actors, Cassel isn’t consigned to one sort of role or another. He can appear in a movie teeming with romance one year and portray a cold-blooded killer the next.
6. Black Swan
Self-harm! Sexual awakenings! Ballet! Black Swan is the tale of Nina (Natalie Portman), a timid ballerina who finds in her inner she-wolf and loses her sanity in the process. Cassel plays Thomas Leroy, the director of Nina’s ballet company and catalyst for her emergence into womanhood.
Nina strives to secure the coveted lead role in her company’s production of Swan Lake, but lacks the passion to portray the uninhibited Black Swan. Leroy encourages Nina to let go via semi-consensual sexual antics and recommendations that the dancer go home and masturbate (an unconventional method of motivation, to be sure).
To say Leroy is a sleazy individual is an understatement. He casually sleeps with comely members of his company, drives a past-her-prime ballerina to a nervous breakdown, and is callous in his treatment of the delicate Nina all for the sake of her art. Cassel brings these offensive traits to life in what is essentially a caricature of a brilliant yet cruel ballet teacher.
While the movie is a little heavy-handed (it’s a Darren Aronofsky production after all), Cassel turns in a solid performance and serves nicely as the film’s antagonist to further degrade Nina’s highly fragile state.