The Vincent

  May 9, 1998                                                           


vp69s.jpg (20351 bytes)In French cinema the women are all glacially beautiful and the men all character actors. This makes Vincent Perez a collector's item. With a lava-like flow of dark hair, gloopy eyes, a lustrous tan and machine-precisioned cheekbones, he is a gleaming pin-up in a country where screen masculinity comes ready-rumpled and halfway through its second pack of Gitanes by lunchtime. Not long ago he was included in People Magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People in the World. His girlfriends tend to come from the same sort of list - Carla Bruni, Jacqueline Bisset. If we're looking for a flaw, it's that he is not six foot two. Though definitely not in the Cruise/Hoffman bracket, he is by no means tall - 5ft 10 max.

Like many truly beautiful people, part of Perez regards his pulchritude as a curse. How else do we explain his first forays into the English language? For 10 years he has been first in the queue for every jeune premier role going in the big French period pieces - Cyrano de Bergerac, La Reine Margot, Indochine. But as the lead in The Crow: City of Angels, an X-rated cartoon strip which limped off to video with a thousand critical stab wounds in its back, he spent the film encrusted in hideously disfiguring make-up. His latest role, in Amy Foster, could not be more different except in one respect. When you first clap eyes on him, Perez is caked in mud and grime, and mistaken for some infernal

Amy Foster is taken from a slender story by Joseph Conrad about a Ukrainian adventurer, bound for America, who is the lone survivor of a shipwreck off the coast of Kent. In the face of intense parochial
suspicion, Yanko (Perez) is taken up by Amy, a kind of Conradian sea nymph (played by Rachel Weisz) who can see the pure soul under the grubby carapace. What with the BBC's misjudged Nostromo and Christopher Hampton's iffy The Secret Agent, there has been a run of indifferent Conrad lately. From by far the most modest source, this adaptation (directed by Beeban Kidron and scripted by Tim Willocks) feels a good deal less cluttered.

Written in 1901, Amy Foster distills the author's autobiographical themes of journey, displacement, assimilation and, above all, the sea. Conrad, like his hero, also arrived on these shores from the other
end of Europe, destitute and unable to speak English. For the film, the location has been changed, and the rain-lashed, wind-battered, sun-kissed coast of north Cornwall where the story is now set has
never looked more seductive. It's as if you're sitting ringside in a contest between Perez and the cliffs around Portquin to see which can look more ravishingly rugged.

Perez himself has fallen for Cornwall in a way that the South-West Film Commission is hoping lots of influential movie people will too. (Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night was a less cinematic advert for the county.) Hollywood producers, however, are less given to the brand of cranky mysticism that is part of the Perez world view. "Rachel Weisz said something really nice,"he says. "She said, 'It's as if we lost our religion in Cornwall.' I discovered King Arthur and all that stuff. I'm like a sponge and I really feel the energies. I have a healing crystal and I love that. When I was a child I was always picking up stones and collecting them in my pockets, as if they were carrying a story."

Perez's English vies for fourth-language status with Italian. ("I love Italian," he breathes huskily.) He describes himself as European - "It's the only way for me to grow." But more specifically his father is Spanish, his mother German. He was brought up speaking French, German and Spanish in rural Switzerland, near Lausanne. That explains the soft spot for Cornwall, but also the penchant for New York, where he only recently gave up renting a SoHo apartment he was too busy to visit. "I've been attracted to big cities because I felt a bit lonely in the countryside. But at the same time I was lucky that I had the chance to live with nature, it gives you the feeling you're part of movement, and to be really in
touch with the seasons."

Perez says that after Christophe Lambert he is probably Switzerland's best-known actor - a bit like being Britain's second most famous skier. 'Whenever I said I want to be an actor, people just laughed,' he says. Somewhat like Yanko, he sought opportunity abroad. He did his theatrical training at the prestigious Conservatoire in Paris, where he still lives, and by the age of 22, had landed his breakthrough in Cyrano.

Perez is now 33, and the parts are "getting more interesting because they're more and more complex." Amy Foster, he says, attracted him partly because the theme of migrant workers struggling to keep
hold of their roots struck a personal chord. But also because "Yanko doesn't behave like a young man. He really is somebody who wants to have a family."

Perez's problem is that until he starts to show some sign of physical deterioration, there is no getting away from the looks, and the looks tend to attract a certain kind of role. "Now I recognize those kind of parts," he says, "so I'm trying to be careful."  In the meantime, thanks to his full-on love scenes with Isabelle Adjani in La Reine Margot, he is one of the few actors who knows what it must be like to be an actress fielding endless questions about doing nudity. "I don't like taking my clothes off," goes his answer, "because I don't like the way people look at you after the screenings."

[Written by Jasper Rees]


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