French Star Vincent Cassel on the Leap From Perennial Bad Guy to (Jewish) Hero

Known for his gangster roles, Cassel plays a good-hearted, observant Jew in ‘The Specials.’ He talks about working with autistic actors, the state of Jewish-Muslim relations in France and why he opposes boycotting artists like Roman Polanski

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Vincent Cassel. 'There is racism, yes, I don’t deny that, but I don’t think it’s the only or the primary trait of France.'
Vincent Cassel at the Venice Biennale 2019. 'There is racism, yes, I don’t deny that, but I don’t think it’s the only or the primary trait of France.' Credit: ALBERTO PIZZOLI / AFP
Shany Littman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman

It’s always interesting to discover that people have different personalities in different languages. I began my telephone interview with actor Vincent Cassel in English, due to some insecurity on my part, but after just a few questions I suggested that we switch to French, his mother tongue. The difference was astounding.

Cassel, who has worked in America for years, speaks very good English. But when we switched to French, he really allowed himself to open up. The restraint that characterized the “American” interview style that he adopted during his years in Hollywood gave way to a much more fluid style peppered with charming curses and totally liberated from the shackles of political correctness.

Over the course of his lengthy career, which began in 1995 with French director Matthieu Kassovitz’s film “La Haine,” Cassel has often played rough-hewn characters who exude an air of violence, while his slender physique and lithe movements imbued them with a certain elegance.

Vincent Cassel. 'There is racism, yes, I don’t deny that, but I don’t think it’s the only or the primary trait of France.'Credit: MAXIME LA / NYT

Such could be said of his portrayal of Kirill, son of the Russian mafia boss in London, in David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises”; of Yann Le Petrec, the brutal bank robber in the French hit movie “Dobermann”; of “The Night Fox” Francois Toulour, the brilliant thief in “Ocean’s Twelve” and “Ocean’s Thirteen”; and of course, of Marcus in Gaspar Noé’s successful and hard-to-watch film, “Irréversible,” in which Cassel acted alongside Monica Belluci, his former wife and the mother of two of his three daughters.

But in the new film by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, the French directing duo that broke hearts and Israeli box office records a few years ago with their film “The Intouchables,” Cassel plays a middle-aged Frenchman, an observant Jew by the name of Bruno Haroche, who devotes his life to caring for autistic children who are so low-functioning that, aside from closed psychiatric wards, the system has nothing to offer them and their desperate parents. Bruno runs a hostel that is home to children whose parents cannot cope with their angry outbursts and inability to relate to those around them.

Bruno is a character who is all kindness, personal charm, determination and humor, and he takes his place in a long line of characters who are exemplary, anti-establishment educators, from Janusz Korczak to Mark Thackeray, the teacher played by Sidney Poitier in “To Sir With Love.”

In the film, Bruno works together with Malik (Reda Kateb), a Muslim, who also runs an aid organization for autistic children. Malik recruits youths from the slums, some of them the children of immigrants, to work as tutors for the kids. Since Bruno’s organization operates without a license, it is always under threat. The framing story of the film is an investigation by the French Health Ministry that threatens to shut down Bruno’s institution.

A true story

The film, “The Specials,” which comes out in Israel this week, though not an artistically breathtaking work, poignantly depicts the struggle of the autistic children and their families.

It’s hard to remain indifferent to the utopia of interreligious brotherhood depicted in it, to the empowering brotherhood of the ostracized, especially when you learn that the plot and main characters are based on a true story and that some of the actors who appear in the movie are in fact autistic.

“The Specials” is in a way a mirror image of another current French movie, “Les Misérables,” about the violence and despair that are such a part of life in the Paris suburbs that are home to the offspring of immigrants who lack the ability to enter the mainstream of French society and partake of its abundant opportunities.

The character of Bruno, whom Cassel endows with great charisma, is based on a man named Stéphane Benhamou, an Orthodox Jewish French teacher who dedicates his life to helping autistic children. He founded Silence des Justes, a socio-medical network that cares for severely autistic children.

Olivier Nakache, left, and Eric Toledano, directors of 'The Specials,' at the Cannes Film Festival. Credit: AFP

Cassel says that after he accompanied Benhamou and watched him in his daily work, after he witnessed up close his relationships with the children, the role of Bruno became quite special for him and different from his other movie roles.

“Maybe I was a little cynical before," he says. "I thought that true heroes don’t exist in reality and that when you’re playing someone you should always find the ‘dirt’ in the character. But when I met Stéphane I saw that there are people who are total good heroes. His level of generosity staggered me. After the movie came out in France, people came up to me in the street and thanked me, as if I were Jesus or some biblical figure. I could feel that what this man does has a powerful effect on people. I only played the role, but this effect was projected onto me too.”

The close cooperation and harmony between Jew and Muslim in the film doesn’t resemble anything that’s happening right now in Israel. And in France, too, the atmosphere between the religions is not exactly conciliatory. How possible is it for such joint efforts to exist in French society?

Vincent Cassel at the Venice Biennale 2019. 'I’m not Catholic or Jewish or Muslim. I’m without a religion.'Credit: Dave Bedrosian/Geisler-Fotopress

“Collaborations like this are still possible, and they do exist. I live in the Belleville section of Paris, which is a very mixed neighborhood. It’s a neighborhood of Mizrahi Jews who came from Tunisia and of Muslims from Africa and North Africa. Before the terror attack on the Twin Towers, the Jewish and Muslim communities there lived together in peace. After the attack, things became harder. In France we’re now grappling with a severe identity crisis and it seems that many young people, the children of immigrants, want to build a different identity for themselves, one that is separate from the French identity. I think these are the reasons for the friction between the communities. For years in France we tried to hide the skeletons in the closet and the result is this crisis. Despite this, people can still cooperate with one another. There are tensions, but not everyone is affected by them. Not everyone is Islamophobic and not everyone is anti-Semitic. Just a minority. France isn’t perfect, but I think people are still finding the way to live together.”

‘Less racism in France than U.S.’

In general, Cassel says, racism in France today is no worse than in other places in the world and the attempt to give his country a bad name in this context makes him mad. “I think there is less racism in France than in America, for instance. If you look at who are the most popular and beloved figures in France in the last few years, you see that it’s people like Omar Sy (the actor of Muslim African descent who won a Cesar for his role in “The Intouchables”), Dany Boon (a movie star who was born Muslim and converted) and Yannick Noah (the tennis star whose family is originally from Cameroon). If France was so racist, I don’t think the most beloved people there would be the children of immigrants from different places. The racism in France derives in large part from ignorance and fear, for which the media bears a significant share of the responsibility. There are stations that shamelessly promote this shitty climate. There is racism, yes, I don’t deny that, but I don’t think it’s the only or the primary trait of France.”

At the same time, Cassel explains that France is grappling with historic issues it hasn’t been able to resolve. “I’m speaking to you now from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. You could argue that this is a mixed city and that there are no differences between the people here. But actually, in Brazil, the blacker you are, the poorer you are. The blacks are the descendants of the slaves who were brought here by the Portuguese settlers. To this day, the wealthy here are the descendants of the Portuguese and the poorest families are of African descent. There are certain social and political conditions here that have endured for centuries. In France it’s the same. We’re stuck in place. Most of the immigration to France came from Algeria, which was a French colony. Even now, schoolchildren are taught that colonialism was an institution that made life better for its subjects. As long as we go on talking in these terms, nothing will change. We have to talk about our past in an honest way, and everyone must acknowledge his responsibility.”

Vincent Cassel, left, and Reda Kateb in 'The Specials.'Credit: Gaumont

Do you think that Stéphane Benhamou being an Orthodox Jew – like the character Bruno in the film – had a significant impact on the life’s mission that he chose for himself?

“Stéphane lives his religion in a very personal way. He couldn’t care less what religion the other people around him believe in. To him, a child is a child. Daoud, his Muslim partner, feels the same way. They both look beyond the faith that they believe in. To me, a beautiful aspect of this film is the way it gives religion its appropriate place and doesn’t make a big deal out of it. The director Eric Toledano said something to me that I thought was quite beautiful: “When you’re caring for someone, God is present.” I’m totally secular myself, and I have a tremendous respect for life. Which means that I essentially believe in God in a certain sense, but I’m not Catholic or Jewish or Muslim. I’m without a religion. We can all be good and generous people and respect life without being religious.”

Staged improvisation

One of the key characters in the film is played by an autistic actor, Benjamin Lesieur. Lesieur plays Bruno’s oldest student, Joseph, who is trying to fit in at his job in a washing machine factory. Cassel says at first he was wary about how the encounter with the autistic people involved in the movie would affect him on the set. “Autistic people of different types participated in the movie, from those with whom you can easily have a conversation to those who don’t speak at all. I was quite shaken at first when I met them. I didn’t know how to act, because I was very emotional. But then I understood that when you work with this world, the emotions calm down. You are able to see things in a practical and pragmatic way and to maintain an emotional distance. The idea is to do, to act, and not to cry about it. There is no place for pity or excitement, you have to be concrete. The second thing that’s important in working with autistic people is being open to improvisation. In scenes with Benjamin, at first the two directors gave us instructions. At a certain point, I said to them, ‘stop speaking to him. If you have something to say, tell it to me and I’ll tell him.’ In the film he is supposed to have just one relationship, with me, because I am his mentor. I’m the one who has to tell him how to behave, otherwise we’ll never get anywhere. So during the filming I gave him the directors’ instructions. It was like a staged improvisation. And it was very chaotic, very creative and constantly surprising.”

This is the moment when an actor would usually talk about how he was completely enchanted with the autistic children and decided from now on to devote a big chunk of his time to helping them. Cassel doesn’t fall into this trap. “You know, I wish I could tell you that I’ll stay in touch with them, but I know myself. When I acted in a film about Paul Gaugin, I had some experience of painting. I told myself I’d keep on painting, but of course that didn’t happen. I’m an actor, which means that I’m one hundred percent interested in the subject because it’s what I’m doing right now. But afterwards life will take me somewhere else.”

You’ve made quite a number of movies in America and you continue to work in France. How do you experience the differences between the two industries, particularly in the context of the #MeToo movement, which lately, a bit behind the rest of the world, is being taken more seriously in France too?

Cassel with his wife, Tina Kunakey.Credit: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

“Those are really two different questions. I didn’t really witness sexism in working on movies, I didn’t feel it. In America, relations within the movie world are much more structured and defined. The atmosphere is much more rigid and hierarchical. Shaming, for example, is very normal in the U.S. When you arrive on the set, you are given a page of instructions that says that if you witness any improper behavior, you are to report it. There’s a commitment to shaming, which is akin to informing on someone. In France, though, especially since World War II and the trauma of people being informed on and turned in, it has a very negative connotation.”

Cassel makes it clear that he does not prefer the American way. “In France, things happen more slowly and the traditions are stronger. But I hope that we never reach the level of the United States, because I find the lifestyle of Americans simply unbearable. I don’t feel comfortable there at all. I like going there to work, but I wouldn’t want to live there. There’s something very artificial there. When I was there, it made me realize how French and European I am. We have a way of seeing things in France, which I think is deeper and more complex. On the less positive side, the French operate more out of inertia, slowly, and have difficulty adapting to changes.”

Not long ago there was heated discussion surrounding Roman Polanski’s film “An Officer and a Spy,” and there were calls to boycott it because of his rape conviction in the U.S. and allegations that he committed other acts of sexual assault. What do you think about the boycotting of artists or works of art because of artists’ behavior?

“If we start to boycott all the people whose behavior isn’t perfect, there will be a lot of artists whose work we won’t get to experience. Unfortunately, there are some very talented people who can be monsters in their private lives. Boycotting an artist is not a solution. From within a dark, twisted, tormented atmosphere, brilliant and thought-provoking works can emerge. I don’t know what was going on in the heads of Freud or Céline or Gauguin or Dostoevsky. If we start to scrutinize the private life of each one of them on moral aspects, and judge their work on that basis, it will be very complicated. Human beings make mistakes and exploit their power in different ways. It’s important to remember that. But it would be a mistake to boycott the works of these people.”