BILL BORROWS talks to Mathieu Kassovitz, star of the hit French drama The Bureau, in which he plays a very modern secret agent, balancing undercover work with a complicated private life.
Mathieu Kassovitz still has trouble with the police but just not on a day-to-day basis. “They don’t stop my car because I am rich now and my car is not like it was before,” he shrugs, remembering his younger days hanging out in the 18th arrondissement of Butte-Montmartre, the son of a Jewish film director who fled Hungary during the revolution in 1956.
“And I’m not black.” This last point is left to hang in the air for a couple of seconds. “I have a problem with street police everywhere because they are over-equipped and dangerous and don’t have the maturity to handle psychologically difficult situations.”
We are due to talk about The Bureau and we will – the fifth season of the French espionage drama in which Kassovitz stars as Malotru is now available to stream here – but events in the United States have intervened. We’re between shootings, sometime after Jacob Blake was gunned down in front of his children in Wisconsin, and before the next incident, and Kassovitz has skin in this game. It might not be black skin but he has been talking about institutionalised racism and the persecution of minorities since his debut feature film La Haine won him Best Director at Cannes in 1995.
The film follows a day in the life of three kids from immigrant families who find a .44 Magnum in the banlieue after a riot and set out to avenge an attack on one of their friends. It is, as the voiceover has it, “about a society in free fall”. Still relevant today, the film was screened in selected cinemas all over Britain earlier this month.
Kassovitz is not surprised it is still being shown. “It’s not like I woke up 25 years later to say what the f**k happened,” he points out. “You can see year after year that nothing’s going to change but many things are evolving at the same time so the whole situation is different on many levels.
“We fought the good fight and had justice in some of those battles, sometimes we didn’t, but that’s what being an activist is all about. If you’re not there to fight the power nobody is there to fight the power, it’s about filling a void and that’s very important.
“You can’t think that you will change the world within your lifetime… but I’m very happy to see that that movie is still very present within the new generations because that means that the fight is still on and one day we will win that f**king fight.”
La Haine also won Kassovitz two César awards (French BAFTAs). On his way to collect them the police at the event turned their backs on him. “I liked it,” he laughs. “Good for them. At least it showed it was not an order from their superiors, that they had a spine, but I would add that they were dummies because they had not seen the movie yet. They were waiting outside, they should have waited until they saw it because I never said I hated cops.”
The obvious choice to play an integral member of the French secret service in The Bureau then?
“The part was written with me in mind,” he laughs. “I can say I would be a very good special agent. In fact, maybe I am so don’t f**k with me.
“When I first read the script I was surprised how good it was because Éric [Rochant – the creator and showrunner] nailed it. He was saying, ‘OK, we all love James Bond and back in the 1960s why not? Maybe he did have an Aston Martin with an ejector seat but today we know that’s not how it works. You can’t jump from a plane on to a horse, you have to just be as discrete as you can’. He understood that in the world we’re living in, we need to know what is going on because if we still think James Bond is going to save us we are mistaken.”
The November 2015 Paris attacks took place six months after the debut season of Le Bureau aired. The show felt right.
“It’s not like we discovered terrorism five years ago,” he says now. “But it was time to figure out how these people who are protecting us behind the curtain work, because they’re regular people who have lives and cannot tell their families what they are doing.
“I think it’s at the end of season four, there’s one character who is in the subway and he is looking at all the people around him having a nice time and they don’t know that they are alive just because these guys do this job. I think that’s very important.
“The secret service is one of the last areas that is protected by the media so the only people who can talk about it are our creatives, writers and directors and they can invent something with the intelligence of the world that we are living in now… we knew we had something good when we showed the first season to the special agents.
“We had a screening at their place and everybody was very impressed and asked us to come back next year, they said we were close enough [to the real experience] and so we’re good.”
As Guillaume Debailly (codename ‘Malotru’– “It’s an insult used by Captain Haddock in Tintin meaning ‘not very well behaved’ and as soon as I saw that I knew I had to do it”), a deep cover-agent with the General Directorate for External Security (DGSE) and an inevitably complicated private life, Kassovitz is enjoying a new level of fame.
“It’s not a problem for me,” he says. “I had it the same for 20 years with people looking at me in the street going like, ‘Do we know each other?’ or something like that. But after The Bureau people have started to know me and also because of La Haine, all the movies and media I’ve done and because I yell a lot I suppose but people are very respectful.”
The Bureau has been a critical and ratings smash in France and lauded by the New York Times as “one of the best international TV shows of the decade”. It is, tellingly perhaps, the first French show to embrace a new kind of methodology, “an almost industrial process” according to Kassovitz. The series exists in Rochant’s head and he writes, directs and edits, but without a break because as one season is finishing he is writing the next one.
“It has been very draining for him,” explains his lead actor. “And after living with it for five years he was over-loaded. He gave the last two episodes to Jacques Audiard [A Self Made Hero, A Prophet] to direct because he didn’t want to finish it, he didn’t know how to finish it.
“He knew he wanted to keep it open in case we wanted to do season six, but he also didn’t want to finish with something when he felt he had become constrained by his own universe… it’s a good TV show and what you don’t want to do is spoil everything at the end so that the show someone spent so many years watching doesn’t mean anyf**kingthing – like when you watched Lost and you were wondering what it was about and then you watched the end and you should have been able to go and ask for a refund. It was a con job.
“We didn’t want to do that and so he gave it to someone else to end and you can see how the last two episodes are different.” They were certainly not universally praised by a loyal and demanding French audience. Predictably perhaps, Kassovitz begs to differ.
“Personally I like [the ending, as it stands] because it has balls and it keeps it open and it is also very much what the series is about because it gets into the characters’ heads and creates a different kind of vibe – it’s interesting.” The clamour in France, and probably soon here and everywhere else, for season six is deafening.
“We’ve had a good run,” he reasons, “But it would be good if we could come back for one last season. I think The Bureau’s got legs because even if we killed the characters off right now, the idea is that agents are meant to be replaced so the TV show can go on for ages and follow what’s going on in the world and interpret it by saying maybe this is what happened behind [the news]… it’s up to Éric. If he wants to do it again we will be here for him and we’ll follow him, if he doesn’t then he has other projects to work on… right now we’re just waiting to see if America re-elect that motherf**ker and the world is going to explode. If we get another year then maybe we’ll go for season six. Let’s keep the world alive and we’ll be back. That’s my message.”
- The Bureau season five is available to stream now on Sundance Now + complete seasons one to four also available