Unlike the photo-booth-obsessed love interest he played in ''Amélie,'' Mathieu Kassovitz doesn't need subtitles. The Parisian director-writer-actor speaks near-perfect English, laced with only the slightest of Gallicisms: a dropped final s here, a softened ch sound there. He can thank Professor Hollywood for that. ''If you want to watch the Marx Brothers, you can't read the subtitles -- it's so fast,'' says Kassovitz over tea in Montreal, where he just directed his first American studio film, Warner's Halle Berry thriller ''Gothika.'' ''You just want to learn what they're saying.''
The son of filmmakers (Hungarian-born father Peter directed 1999's ''Jakob the Liar'' and mother Chantal Remy is an editor), Kassovitz dropped out of high school at 17 to join the family business. (''School wasn't really working out,'' he laughs.) Since then, the doe-eyed 36-year-old has pocketed a Cannes Best Director prize for his controversial 1995 film, ''Hate,'' about life in Parisian projects; stolen hearts alongside Audrey Tautou in 2001's ''Amélie,'' the most successful French-language film ever; and upped his glam profile by becoming the face of Lancome's Miracle Homme fragrance.
Then Hollywood called. ''Gothika'' producer Joel Silver (of ''Matrix'' renown) approached Kassovitz just last year, after catching his 2000 flick ''The Crimson Rivers'' on a plane to Paris. ''It could have been hell, working for a studio, starting with an unfinished script and a superstar,'' Kassovitz admits. ''I said, either I'm gonna do a f---ing stupid movie, or if the energy's right, enjoy it.'' It turned out to be the latter -- despite a number of setbacks that included a three-week delay in production when Berry broke her arm. ''We got through, and I don't know if it's because we shot in Montreal, because of Joel, or because of Halle, but it's the best shoot I've ever done. It's a good movie, and I feel like I can do [anything] for the next one.''
And Kassovitz already has plans for his future. First, no more acting. ''I'm a director,'' he says. ''I've got to focus on my craft.'' Then, a return to Paris (where he lives with his wife, actress Julie Mauduech, and their 2-year-old daughter) to prep the science-fiction thriller ''Babylon Babies,'' starring buddy and longtime collaborator Vincent Cassel (''Irreversible''). ''I don't want to become a director of the week in L.A., making a lot of money just doing what I've been told,'' says Kassovitz. ''But I don't want to be stuck in France forever. I'm an international director. I can go back and forth.'' Sounds like the perfect French connection.