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Little big man

Mathieu Kassovitz has had his motorbike helmet off for only two minutes and already he has said he would like to beat up a critic and repeated his charge that director Jean-Luc Godard should go screw himself. It’s hard not to like him.

This isn’t how one would expect a romantic lead to carry on. Still less is this the kind of talk you’d expect from a man who has just been chosen by parfumier Lancôme to promote its new male scent. ”All I will say is that if I ran across that critic, I might well smack him one,” says Kassovitz across the conference room table of his Paris production company office. ”You can’t say things like that.”

The man in question has attacked the film Amélie, in which Kassovitz plays the heroine’s love interest. The film has been a massive hit in France, and was nominated for a best foreign film Oscar. The most successful French film of recent years, it is a sentimental charmer set in the Parisian district of Montmartre and directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who made Delicatessen and Alien: Resurrection. It’s a film that every French cinemagoer seems to have loved: a feelgood romantic comedy teeming with adorable French eccentrics and state-of-the-art special effects. Amélie has taken more than double its nearest domestic rival, not least because it evokes a heartwarming vision of the country that all French people have found irresistible.

All but one man. Serge Kaganski, an editor at the magazine Les Inrockuptibles, pronounced Amélie racist. Where are the blacks, the Arabs, the Pakistanis, the gays and the rest who make the 18th arrondissement, where Amélie is set, such a vibrant area? Why was the only Arab character in the film given the French name Lucien?

In a newspaper article, Kaganski said that if the leader of France’s National Front, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was gathering together material for a party political broadcast, he would need to look no further than Amélie.

Kassovitz sighs. ”I don’t want to talk about it too much because I would start to make death threats. Look — the thing is, this is a lovely romantic comedy. I liked the film because Jean-Pierre succeeded in producing a huge amount of emotion really graphically with the camera. It’s a good film. He makes you laugh, makes you cry. It pleased pretty much everybody.”

In Amélie, Kassovitz plays Nino Quincampoix, a part-time cashier at a Pigalle porn shop who on Wednesdays screams into the ears of ghost-train passengers at a nearby fairground. Like many of the eccentric characters in Jeunet’s film, he’s one of the gens de peu — a little guy struggling in a hostile world.

This isn’t the kind of role you’d expect actor-director Kassovitz to play. He usually goes for much sterner stuff. As a director he’s made such ferocious films as La Haine, a passionately angry film about alienated Parisian youth, and Les Rivières Pourpres (The Crimson Rivers), a thriller about serial killers possessed by some post-Nazi philosophy of genetic determinism.

As an actor, too, his roles have chiefly been of a more sombre bent: in Jacques Audiard’s wonderful A Self-made Hero (1996) he played a man who invented himself as a Resistance hero; in the forthcoming film Eyewitness he plays a Vatican priest trying to alert the Pope to the Nazi extermination of the Jews.

Is it hard for him to play a romantic lead? ”Yes. It’s difficult for me because that’s not really in my nature. It’s hard for me to be a romantic on camera without giving the impression that I’m a bit of a jerk, you know — stupid.” But that’s probably why Kassovitz’s incarnation of a real-life obsessive collector works. Like his co-star, Audrey Tautou, who plays Amélie, his character come across as goofy, kooky and — if you’re in the right mood — adorable.

Through the success of Amélie Kassovitz has become a household face rather than just a household name. There he was at Cannes in May this year, working on the festival jury, when some nice people from Lancôme approached him about their scent Miracle. ”I thought they wanted me to work as a director on a commercial. I didn’t imagine for a second that they want to me to be their new image.”

He was born in 1967 to a mother who was a film editor and a father who was a film director. ”If they had been bakers, I would have become a baker,” he says. His father took him to the cinema from a very young age to see Hollywood movies; as a result he fell in love with Steven Spielberg. The fondness shows no sign of diminishing. When Godard attacked Spielberg’s films recently, Kassovitz stood up for his childhood hero and for his love of American cinema.

”What he said was so philistine and yet it’s typical of the insularity and pseudo-intellectualism of French cinema culture,” says Kassovitz. ”So it falls to me to say to Godard, ‘Stop the bullshit, stop working, go and do something else.’ Go screw yourself and stop bad-mouthing Spielberg.”

The young Kassovitz spent much of his time on his father’s film sets. In 1979 his father called him to play a small role in Au Bout du Bout du Banc (aka Make Room for Tomorrow) which also starred Jane Birkin. But his first love remained American cinema. ”You know, in my wildest dreams I would love to direct a film with Edward Norton, Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando. I’ve worked with some of the greatest French actors — Michel Serrault, Vincent Cassel, Jean Reno — but that doesn’t mean I only want to work with them.”

At 17 he quit school to get into film-making and, after learning his trade as assistant director on a few forgotten pictures, he made his first film called Fierrot Le Pou, a gag at the expense of Godard’s 1965 film Pierrot Le Fou. Although he made several shorts and one feature film in the early 1990s, he made his breakthrough as an actor in Jacques Audiard’s Regarde Les Hommes Tomber opposite Jean-Louis Trintignant, for which he won a César award for most promising actor. In 1995 he directed La Haine and suddenly he was famous.

La Haine awoke French cinema from its stultifying arthouse slumbers and gave it a much needed injection of social relevance. The film told the story of three tough kids from one of Paris’s vile high-rise suburbs — a Jew, an Arab and an African — who one night go into the smug, white, self-regarding world of inner Paris with explosive and disastrous consequences.

Kassovitz reckons that the film’s international success came because ”all kids around the world have the same problems — in London, New York, Paris, wherever”. But there is surely something more to it than that. Until La Haine, most viewers of French cinema abroad had no idea that Paris was beset by youthful alienation or that such anger coursed through the veins of its filmmakers.

He tried something similar with last year’s Les Rivières Pourpres, a crime thriller adapted from the bestselling novel by Jean-Christophe Grangé. French cinema isn’t supposed to be about rogue cops on the trail of serial killers; it should be about Fanny Ardant in a pompadour wig, Emmanuelle Béart in nothing at all, or about verbose yet decorous young couples talking their summers away for the benefit of Eric Rohmer. Still less should French films have scenes of kickboxing and helicopters, or back-talking pneumatic geology professors for sexual interest. Les Rivières Pourpres had all these.

The film did well in France, where it satisfied the multiplex hunger for French genre films, but abroad it bombed. Which is a shame, because Kassovitz longs for his films to triumph overseas. ”It doesn’t interest me to be successful in France. What I want to do is to make films that are successful in the United States that then become a success in France.”

He takes as his model the British director Stephen Frears. ”What he does is to alternate: he’ll make a big blockbuster in the US and then come back to Europe to make The Snapper or some great little film like that. I would like to do that.”

Kassovitz is making a career along those lines, except that in his case he also appears in small films as an actor. He played opposite Robin Williams in Jakob the Liar (1999) — a film directed by his father — and has just finished working on Eyewitness.

He set up a production company last year called 1B2K with fellow directors Luc Besson and Jan Kounen, based in both Los Angeles and Paris. He now hopes to direct a film in the US. ”I don’t want to be constrained by being French. I think Arletty [the French film star of the 1940s] put it best: when she was accused of collaboration with the Nazis, she said: ‘My heart is French, but my arse is international.’ I feel exactly the same way.” In fact Arletty wasn’t speaking of her arse but of something between her legs that Kassovitz will never have. But there’s no time to tell Kassovitz this because he has put his motorcycle helmet back on and taken his international arse back out on to the Paris streets.

Amélie starts today.

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Stuart Jeffries
Guest Author

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