Many French actors are popular in Hollywood, but few are as recognizable as Vincent Cassel. With his unique gritty looks and versatile filmography, he is considered one of the most fascinating and prolific French performers. Born in 1966 to a journalist and a famous actor, Jean-Pierre Cassel, his breakout role came in 1995 in La Haine, a French social drama that perfectly encapsulates the anger of forgotten youngsters. Vincent Cassel has not stopped acting since his films throughout the 1990s and 2000s made him very popular in France, and throughout the 2010s, he made a name for himself on the other side of the Atlantic, starring in bigger-budget features and even in blockbusters.

Yet Cassel’s career is also noteworthy because he has never stopped acting in French films, including smaller-budget and experimental ones, often portraying angry and complex characters. His latest role is in a French blockbuster, a high-budget and dark adaptation of the French classic The Three Musketeers (2023). The first part of the duology was released in April to critical success, and the second, subtitled Milady and starring Eva Green, will be released next month. As we await this second movie and Cassel’s part in it, let’s take a look back on his most memorable roles throughout the years – and across the genres.

10. Athos – The Three Musketeers (2023)

Athos - The Three Musketeers (2023) Vincent Cassel

The latest adaptation of The Three Musketeers, which came out earlier this year, is resolutely different from previous ones: the film has a darker tone, focuses more on fight scenes, and is overall a grittier take on the original story. It still follows a trio of elite musketeers, fun-loving Portos (Pio Marmaï), flirtatious priest Aramis (Romain Duris), and somber Athos (Vincent Cassel). They meet D’Artagnan (François Civil), a naive young man who dreams of becoming a musketeer but soon ends up way over his head when he stumbles upon state secrets. Here, Vincent Cassel is Athos – arguably the most interesting of all four main characters, a depressed man who crosses paths with the hopeful D’Artagnan and sees in him a mirror of his former self.

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The character of Athos is a perfect part for Cassel: both are sensitive men who hide behind a quarrelsome exterior. In an interview, the actor outlined that he really related to his character and described him as an “old wolf” – explaining that his age had helped him to step into the shoes of this tormented protagonist. Cassel embodies the character very well. Yet owing to the film’s ensemble cast, he does not have enough time to discuss the musketeer’s motivations and traumatic past, hence why the film is not ranked higher on this list. The sequel, Milady, set to be released in December, should focus on the femme fatale played by Eva Green and will hopefully give Cassel more time to shine.

9. Max Kerkerian – The Crimson Rivers (2000)

Max Kerkerian - The Crimson Rivers (2000) Vincent Cassel

In this French thriller with a horrific edge, two police investigators working in small towns find out that their cases are linked – and that solving them will require delving into the villagers’ dangerous secrets. Vincent Cassel plays Max Kerkerian, a rookie detective who is delighted to meet his idol but quickly finds out that the people around him are a lot more threatening than he had expected. While his fight scene against skinheads is especially fun and enchanting, the film also features another peculiarity. It does not only star Vincent Cassel but also his own father, the famous actor Jean-Pierre Cassel. The latter has a minor part as a local doctor, but seeing father and son together on screen is a nice moment.

The movie has an interesting setting and a reasonably well-crafted mystery, which gives Cassel time to play with the cliché of the rookie cop who is eager to prove himself. Despite this very solid performance, the film’s patchy editing drew some criticism, as did its over-the-top finale. Cassel himself criticized the chopped editing, outlining that the director had left out too much important information on the floor of the cutting room, in turn making some details of the mystery hard to understand. The Crimson Rivers remains a solid thriller from the turn of the millennium, with strong performances from both father and son.

8. Vidocq – The Emperor of Paris (2018)

Vidocq - The Emperor of Paris (2018)

Before The Three Musketeers, there was The Emperor of Paris: another actionised historical drama starring Vincent Cassel. This time, it is based on actual events instead of a book and focuses on the life of Eugène-François Vidocq. Often known only by his last name, the man was a former convict who eventually became a policeman in early 19th century France, even making history as one of the first private detectives in the country. The movie focuses on his exploits as he creates his own team of “Expendables-like” crime fighters, some ex-convicts who help him to infiltrate local crime syndicates. The Emperor of Paris has a fairly dark tone and delves deep into the filthy streets of the capital, full of violence and vermin.

In it, Vincent Cassel does what he does best: he plays a gritty anti-hero constantly fighting gangsters – and his own inner demons. The film is far from perfect, with some underdeveloped background characters and a second half that feels too rushed, but it does offer an excellent opportunity for Cassel. For once, he is given more than a supporting role. The film follows Vidocq’s quest, and the actor really sells the part as he is allowed to fully show the extent of his talent. More than a simple anti-hero, Vincent Cassel presents Vidocq as a flawed man trying to make the most of his life in an unequal society, making it one of his most exciting roles.

7. The Night Fox – Ocean’s Twelve (2004) & Ocean’s Thirteen (2007)

The Night Fox - Ocean’s Twelve (2004)

One role, two films: Cassel is the mysterious Night Fox in the final two parts of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Trilogy. The saga follows charismatic gangster Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and his colorful gang of robbers. In the second installment, Night Fox is one step ahead of the gang, seemingly able to steal documents faster than Ocean and his entire crew. Cassel is one of the excellent actors in a film filled with memorably fun performances, but his “laser dance” as he infiltrates a vault solidifies him as a hilarious thief and strong villain.

The actor plays with the cliché of the thief who avoids lasers and instead starts dancing on screen using Capoeira moves – to show viewers that the Night Fox is perfectly confident and in control. An even funnier side of Cassel’s role is revealed partway through the film, as Night Fox’s identity is exposed: he is none other than a French nobleman, Baron François Toulour. French viewers will see that this is a nod to Arsène Lupin, a gentleman thief created by author Maurice Leblanc, who remains very famous in the country. The Night Fox never dies, and Cassel reprises his role in the follow-up Ocean’s Thirteen – his part is smaller here, but the actor is still comfortable in the leather shoes of the unique robber.

6. Bruno – The Specials (2019)

Bruno - The Specials (2019) Vincent Cassel

France is known for its social dramas, but the country also has a history of producing uplifting small-budget films about topical social issues. The Specials is one of them. Based on a true story, it is a poignant dive into the lives of two men who manage NGOs that help young people with autism spectrum conditions grow and access education and employment. Despite its sometimes contested portrayal of disabilities, the film is extremely touching and raw, and the emotions run high but never feel forced.

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The Specials simply lays out the bare and difficult truth: that in France, autistic people and those who work with them are ignored, when not rebuffed, by most institutions. Vincent Cassel is definitely one of the movie’s highlights. His role is the exact opposite of the gritty bad guy he usually plays on screen, but he is wholly believable as Bruno, who made caring for others his entire life. While on paper, this part is definitely out of his usual range, Cassel is radiant as a man who has every reason to be angry. The Specials is an excellent social drama, partly thanks to the commitment of Vincent Cassel and Reda Kateb, who plays Malik, another NGO manager. The film is gripping and moving and sheds light on a reality many wish to forget, making it one of Cassel’s finest performances.

Read More: 10 Interesting Psychological Thriller Movies You Can Stream on Hulu Right Now

5. Georgio – My King (2015)

Georgio - My King (2015) Vincent Cassel

Another French film featuring Vincent Cassel in a titular role is My King, a drama by famous director Maïwenn, which is based on one of her own love stories. In the film, Cassel stars as Georgio, the former husband of Tony (Emmanuelle Bercot), a woman who ends up in a rehabilitation center after a serious injury and reflects on her past. Georgio is a haunting presence in Tony’s life, and it soon becomes clear that their relationship is based on an unhealthy co-dependency and sometimes verges into obsession. Here, Vincent Cassel plays an incredibly complex character.

Georgio is definitely not a good man and is sometimes downright abusive towards his wife, refusing to let her go when she wants to leave him. He still cares for her, but both suffocate in an unhealthy relationship. The role of Cassel in the film is suitably nuanced and intense. He is both affable and threatening and perfectly embraces the excesses of his character. Vincent Cassel’s performance here is clearly one of his very best: he feels drastically natural, and his lines never seem forced. The movie itself is an excellent dive into the madness of passion and obsession, with a plot that takes the time to explore all aspects of this toxic yet heartbreaking love story.

4. Marcus – Irréversible (2002)

Marcus - Irréversible (2002) Vincent Cassel

Irréversible is difficult to watch but an interesting one for viewers who are able to stomach its content. The film focuses on the aftermath of a brutal sexual assault and how Marcus, played by Vincent Cassel, seeks revenge for his abused girlfriend with the help of his friend Pierre (Albert Dupontel). The movie has a unique editing: as befits its title, Irréversible is edited in reverse chronological order. It begins with a – grisly – end and ends with the beginning of the whole story, following the lives of Marcus and his beloved girlfriend before the assault. Irréversible caused a major controversy in France upon its release, accused of being gratuitously violent like many other films from its director Gaspar Noé.

The movie does delve into violence and sometimes lengthily depicts heinous crimes, making it best reserved for mature audiences. Yet it is worth watching for its editing alone, and in it, Vincent Cassel is compelling as a man driven to madness by his anger. The movie begins with an outburst of his explosive rage, and the rest of it is spent analyzing how he spiraled down into it – eventually becoming almost like the man he wanted to fight. Never has Cassel’s animalistic presence been better used than in Irréversible, making the film worth a watch.

3. Jean-François – Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001)

Jean-François - Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001)

French horror is a goldmine for anyone who is not afraid of delving into its gory world, and Brotherhood of the Wolf is a perfect example. Much like The Crimson Rivers, the film has a dark tone and almost gothic aesthetic. This time, it takes place in late 18th-century France, where a mysterious beast terrorizes a remote region. This story is based on a French legend, which reports that a murderous animal would have mauled villagers in the region of Gévaudan around that time. In the film, Vincent Cassel is Jean-François de Morangias, a shady nobleman who lost his hand a long time ago and is visited by knight Grégoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan), whom the King sent to solve the case.

The movie’s production value is exceptionally high for a local period drama, and it is visually very pleasing. Its core mystery – which will not be spoiled here – is also well-written and difficult to predict. Cassel plays a complex part in the movie as a man who knows more than he lets on and seems to have been durably scarred by his past. Even twenty years after its release, Brotherhood of the Wolf remains a solid watch thanks to its ensemble cast and unique take on French folklore and regional legends.

2. Thomas Leroy – Black Swan (2010)

Thomas Leroy - Black Swan (2010)

Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 masterpiece is a claustrophobic dive into the competitive world of ballet and follows Nina, a talented dancer (Natalie Portman), who begins to lose her grip on reality. Nina fully descends into madness as the competition for the two main roles in Swan Lake increases, and confident newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis) seems to be more talented than her. This psychological thriller is wonderfully filmed and full of creative ideas, to the point where the limits of Nina’s reality are sometimes unclear. Black Swan is a masterful cinematic experience in which Vincent Cassel plays an uncomfortably domineering French artistic director, Thomas Leroy.

Thomas seems to take a strange liking to some of his dancers and enjoys pushing them too far. Of course, Cassel’s character is dark and shady, and his performance is absolutely perfect for the film, as viewers never know what he really is up to – and whether everything might just be in Nina’s head. Leroy seems to have weird designs towards some of his dancers but also shows genuine concern for Nina and her wellbeing. Some films are worth watching for entertainment purposes. Others, like Black Swan, are so creative and complex that they deserve a rewatch to notice all the small details and fully make sense of the story.

1. Vinz – La Haine (1995)

Vinz - La Haine (1995)

High On Films in collaboration with Avanté

This 1995 film has not aged a day, and while very well-known in France, La Haine (The Hatred) deserves a lot more international attention. Shot entirely in black and white, the film follows three youngsters who live in a deprived French neighborhood on the margins of society. After a particularly violent occurrence of police brutality and a night of conflict with law enforcement, the men who lost their friend walk through Paris and meet various characters. In La Haine, Vincent Cassel is Vinz, a young Jewish man with aggressive tendencies, who somehow got his hands on the revolver of a cop – and cannot wait to use it, despite the fear of his friends Hubert (Hubert Koundé) and Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui).

The film has a unique aesthetic and is a fascinating portrayal of an angry and side-lined youth – which still feels impressively relevant in 2023. Perfectly shot, it is partly improvised, meaning the dialogues have a realistic feel. Cassel’s part as an angry young man who keeps threatening everyone is exceptionally raw and believable. One of his scenes, in particular, made history: the moment when he tries to scare himself in front of a mirror is constantly quoted and even recreated in French media. La Haine is a masterful dive into a violent and divided society. This was Cassel’s breakout role almost thirty years ago, but it has not aged since and is a must-see for whoever is interested in French cinema, social issues, and this brilliant actor.

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