Handsome rogue who gets the girl

Actor Vincent Cassel and his partner, Togolese-Italian model Tina Kunakey (both above) at the screening of the film, Girls Of The Sun, at this year's Cannes Film Festival in May.
Actor Vincent Cassel and his partner, Togolese-Italian model Tina Kunakey (both above) at the screening of the film, Girls Of The Sun, at this year's Cannes Film Festival in May.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

PARIS • Vincent Cassel was in a rush.

He could spare no more than 20 minutes for the interview, never mind that the reporter had slogged through a long journey - five hours by train - from Cannes to Paris.

Cassel had also made his own journey - but on film.

Gauguin: Voyage To Tahiti, his latest movie, is a romanticised, somewhat sanitised biopic that details the artist's sojourn in French Polynesia and, in particular, his union with a Tahitian woman some 30 years his junior.

The film, which opened last month, has one striking parallel to Cassel's life.

The actor, once married to actress Monica Bellucci, with whom he has two daughters, plans to wed 21-year-old Tina Kunakey, a Togolese-Italian model.

At 52, Cassel is one of France's premier exports, canny enough to have won critics' regard for his reptilian portrayals of villains.

Americans will recognise him as a cobra-like assassin in Jason Bourne (2016) and a predatory ballet director in Black Swan (2010).

He is stylish enough to have scored fashion spreads in Vogue Hommes and Numero, and roguishly sexy enough in some recent films to have attained leading-man status.

An unnerving blend of easy charm and menace, he is among the latest in a line of celebrated French cinema hard guys (Jean Gabin and Jean-Paul Belmondo come to mind) - wily, brooding antiheroes who exude a machismo rarely matched in modern American cinema.

It is a tradition Cassel seemed pleased to embrace.

It is not about brawn, he says.

His unsavoury characters show a cerebral bent.

"Nowadays, everyone is built up," he says, thinking of professional hulks like Tom Hardy and Vin Diesel.

"There is the law of the muscle, you know, but it has nothing to do with acting."

Cassel is fit, his taut 1.88m frame the product in part of his training as a dancer and circus aerialist.

Some portion of his athleticism was inherited from his father, Jean-Pierre Cassel, a suave movie idol who was known as the French Fred Astaire.

The son projects something more feral, claiming to have lately regained access to what he has called his "manimal", a savage side of his nature, he says, "that when you are not acting, you usually hide".

His inner beast takes on a different form each day.

"Sometimes, I feel as a jaguar and, sometimes, a pigeon," he notes.

"A jaguar is cool, but we're not always cool."

At least not when it comes to love.

The French, he suggested, are apt to take risks, to play by their own rules, unlike Americans, who are a "more codified" and "a little plastic".

"People do things in a row," he says.

"You date. There are things that you do on first night, on a second date."

"Gauguin wanted to be free," he says. "I admire that."

But in telling ways, his Gauguin is undone by his attachment to his very young bride.

When the artist spies her two-timing him with a Tahitian boy close to her age, he locks her in their cabin.

Could Cassel relate?

He skirts the issue.

"There is a cruelty built into the difference between the genders," he said.

"At any age, men have this ability to start a new life. Women do not. I'm conscious of that," he adds.

"It's not always fair," he points out.

"I'm 52 and I'm getting married to a 21-year-old girl," he says, referring to Kunakey.

"I'm very much in love and sure we are going to make babies."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 13, 2018, with the headline 'Handsome rogue who gets the girl'. Print Edition | Subscribe