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Vincent Cassel’s Drive to Be “Enemy #1”

Vincent Cassel’s Drive to Be “Enemy #1” (photo)

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It would have been easy for Vincent Cassel to become a glamorous movie star early on in life — as the talented son of the French actor Jean-Pierre Cassel, he could have just waited for the leading man roles to come to him. “There was a path for me early on,” says the 43-year-old actor. “A very clear path. I would have been these jeune premieres, these romantic leads. And I totally refused it.”

Instead, the younger Cassel took a variety of darker, more diverse roles — most notably as a young skinhead in Mathieu Kassovitz’s breakthrough feature “La Haine (Hate).” In the process, he became identified with unhinged, physical, often brutish characters — in films like Jan Kounen’s “Dobermann” and Gaspar Noé’s “Irreversible.” (It carried over to Hollywood as well, with parts in films like “Ocean’s Twelve” and “Eastern Promises.”) And it could be argued that Cassel has become an even bigger star today than he might have been had he played it safe.

So it seems like a no-brainer that he would have been cast as the lead in Jean-François Richet’s two-part crime thriller “Mesrine,” an epic look at the career of France’s most notorious criminal Jacques Mesrine. But Cassel actually notes that he was ambivalent about the character at first, because of the way Mesrine’s crimes had been romanticized over the years: “I wanted to make sure that viewers understood he wasn’t this great guy,” the actor says.

The result is Cassel’s most ambitious role to date, and it’s easy to see why he won a César Award for his performance — over the four-plus hours of the two films (“Mesrine: Killer Instinct” and “Mesrine: Public Enemy #1”), the actor has to hold our attention, win our sympathies, disgust and outrage us, and still leave us fascinated by this complex and brutish character. The surprisingly soft-spoken Cassel sat down with us during a recent visit to New York to discuss this movie and his career.

This film came out in France almost two years ago. It’s taken a while to get it released stateside.

By this point, I guess that’s normal, because it took a while to make the movie, too. Between the time producer Thomas Langmann told me about it for the first time to the moment we released it in France, it took seven years. Then we released it all over the world, but the financial crisis hit the market so hard, we lost the distributor we had for North America. So then it took a while to find another one. But I really fought for the movie to be released in America. And there was no way we could have cut it down from two films.

We’d rather have had it not distributed than have it cut down. Why not? It did well in a lot of countries. But it’s funny, between “Carlos,” and “Baader Meinhof,” and “Che,” we have these long films revisiting this era. But we started working on this film before this trend started. We also started before this recent trend of biopics in France — before “La Môme” [better known in America as the 2007 Edith Piaf biopic “La Vie En Rose”]. Now, we have “Gainsbourg,” and someone wants to do one about Yves Montand. It’s a big fad now.

08232010_VincentCasselMesrine2.jpgHow familiar were audiences with Mesrine before the film?

They don’t necessarily know that much about him, but everybody knows the name. Everybody knows that he’s a gangster.

So, he’s like Dillinger in the U.S.

That’s hard for me to say because I didn’t know who Dillinger was before I saw the movie “Public Enemies.” [laughs] But I was 12 when Mesrine died. And that’s the first time I had heard of him. The image of his death was so violent — they literally exposed the body in prime time, in a newsbreak. It was totally insane. From there, I knew who he was in a very superficial way. And growing up, I had lots of friends who were quoting him, they had t-shirts with his face. A lot of rappers and graffiti artists were using his name. But I didn’t really care for it.

So when Thomas Langmann asked me if I wanted to play this character, I started to think about him. And something struck me about him, about the fact that he was a racist at first. He started his career by killing two Arabs. But his fanbase was largely second-generation immigrants from North Africa. That was interesting and contradictory. That was also my personal link to the project. Because my fanbase — let’s call it that — because of films like “La Haine,” comes from the suburbs in France — the projects. I wanted to expose those guys to the reality of their hero.

Do you think they understood it?

It worked. I love to go to real cinemas and sneak in and feel the atmosphere during a film, see how people react or don’t react to a film. So I went and watched it with a real audience like that. And the first 20 minutes of the movie, when this guy was making racist jokes and all that, it was tense. It was like when I was watching “True Romance,” on 42nd Street, when it was released, watching the Dennis Hopper scene, as he’s building up to that racist joke. I was looking around, wondering, “Where is this shit going?” That was great. Because that’s when cinema really gets under your skin. You remember an experience like that.

08232010_VincentCasselMesrine4.jpgMesrine has an interesting trajectory in that regard. He starts off as a racist but towards the end he kills a journalist who turns out to have been a racist ex-cop.

And he’s ready to engage with the Red Brigades as well. You know, I think Mesrine was a fake for most of his life. He was using justifications for his crimes, but he didn’t really believe them. There’s a scene where he’s interviewed by this girl, and he’s mixing in the Red Brigades and talking about Baader Meinhof and the Palestinians. He’s pretending to be a political warrior. In a way, I think it’s pretty touching. We all have different natures and energy at the beginning, and then we make different life choices and we want to justify those. He’s not the first rebel without a cause. But I do think at the end of his life he was maybe ready to use the incredible energy he had for a real cause. And maybe that’s why he died, too. He would have been incredibly dangerous if he had done so.

I admired the fact that the film struck a balance between this common, romantic perspective of Mesrine while also revealing him to be a pretty buffoonish character.

Without that, I don’t think the movie would have been very interesting. We really wanted to keep all these things in play — despite all the things Mesrine did in his life, he still managed to have a positive image, almost like a Robin Hood, even though he never gave anything back to anybody.

He bought jewels with the money he stole…

Exactly! He was the most capitalistic guy ever, as one of his accomplices tells him. So we couldn’t get rid of the bad aspects of him. We had to recreate the same trick — show all the bad things he did, and yet still find a way to get the audience to root for him, even though we also want them to feel guilty for rooting for him. I think we achieved that. The movie never tells you what to think of him. Most of the time when there’s so much money involved in making a film, you want to tell people what to think. But with Mesrine, at the end of two films, it becomes less about what we told you to think but who you are as an audience.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.


IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.



IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….


IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.


IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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