Studiocanal’s Blu-ray release of Jacques Becker’s Casque d’Or offers a great chance to reassess a beautifully shot and constructed film which perhaps has never really received its due. A Belle Epoque love story between a prostitute/gangster’s moll and a carpenter which, while not cropping up on many people’s Top Ten French Film lists, is nonetheless a fascinating link film in the history of French Cinema and looks wonderfully fresh on Blu-ray.
With its opening shots of a boating excursion to an afternoon of outdoor dancing at a guinguette, the film brings to mind the cinema of Jean Renoir, for whom Becker had worked as an assistant director before the Second World War. As the film progresses there are hints of the films of Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert but also suggestions of things to come in the 1960s films of Louis Malle and of the Nouvelle Vague directors. With its period backdrop and setting within in a criminal demi-monde, it is most likely to be compared with Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) but whereas Carné’s film employs cinematic poetry, there is something more subtle about Becker’s film, which is somewhere closer to the proto-noir of Quai des Brumes (1938) or Le Jour se Leve (1939).
Despite the obvious comparisons, Becker manages to pull off a brilliantly crafted piece of storytelling on film. As a director he was known to be a slow working perfectionist and although he was apparently tied to a tight schedule for Casque d’Or, the results show the work of a director able to balance everything perfectly. One of the most striking things about the film is the way that it tells the story of the compromised position facing the female protagonist, a blonde bombshell played by Simone Signoret. In a lesser film she would be described as the cliché ‘tart with a heart’ but in Casque d’Or Signoret, although shot beautifully, is also given a chance to be more animalistic and human than simply a stylised screen goddess. In this film she is very much the driving force of the action as she tries to get her man.
Serge Reggiani’s performance is the perfect counter balance that allows Signoret to shine in her role. A strong silent character, Reggiani’s Manda performs the role which generally falls to a woman in this type of story – that of being the central character’s object of desire. Of course, Signoret’s Marie – with her striking looks and her blonde hair the Casque d’Or (‘Golden Helmet’) of the film’s title – is the object of desire for three men but it is crucial to this film that the love story is hers. The film is about her desire to have the chance to pursue a lover on her own terms. Becker manages to tell her story through revealing the intertwined stories of those around her. At times the viewer could be tricked into thinking that the film is about Manda and his antagonistic relationship with Claude Dauphin’s crime boss, Leca, with whom he is fighting for the prize of Marie. As strong and appealing a character as Manda is, though, Casque d’Or’s ending leaves the viewer in no doubt that what happens in the film is happening to Marie. The final sequence is remarkable – a brilliant piece of mirroring in which what appears to be happening to one character is symbolically mirrored upon the other in a way where you realise that the two are in complete empathy.
The film rightly projected Signoret into recognition which would lead to her becoming the first French actress to win an Oscar (for her performance in Room at the Top ). Echoes of her performance can be seen in later films starring Jeanne Moreau. Signoret’s performance is great and Reggiani and Dauphin support her well, but the whole cast plays its part, with Becker weaving a tale of hope, redemption, revenge and despair by interlocking beautifully timed scenes, many of which do not require Signoret’s on-screen presence to move her tale along.
The Blu-ray extras include an interesting documentary which puts the history of the film into perspective. Casque d’Or’s reception in France at the time of release was apparently lukewarm, although the film fared better in the UK where Simone Signoret won a Bafta for her performance. Time has restored the film to a position of greater respect in France and it is definitely worth watching or re-watching on Blu-ray.