The highly engaging and surprisingly visceral Casque d’Or is a romance set amidst the subterfuge and criminality of professional gangs and prostitutes in the hard drinking, hard dancing, hard fighting location of early twentieth century Paris.
Georges, now named Manda (Serge Reggiani), has returned from a five year spell behind bars and seeks a simple reintegration into city life. He returns to the established drink and dance halls where, despite hearing local women declaring that “everywhere you go to today you see whores,” he engages in a waltz with Marie (Simone Signoret) with whom he becomes, like many charmed by her beauty and coquettish flirtation, infatuated. The feeling is mutual. Unfortunately Raymond (Raymond Bussières) is meant to be her amour and this raises complications, not least in the form of numerous male individuals who have been engaged in wanton paid-for encounters as well as the team under the reign of gang leader Félix Leca (Claude Dauphin), whose apparent occupation as a spirit and wine merchant disguises the fact that he is both unscrupulous and violent. The gang force Manda to engage in a duel but its weapons are not, as he anticipates, fisticuffs, but rather a battle with a single knife between the combatants. Manda ultimately wins, killing his opponent in the process, he seeks refuge outside Paris at the farm of La mère d’Eugène (Odette Barencey). Marie finds him but can their love survive this horrible situation?
The opening shot depicting groups of gaily attired people rowing down an idyllic river points to this film being a charming heritage romance but our expectations are shattered as the relationships and positions of the people within this society are revealed. Any romanticism is only truly expressed on rare occasions, such as when Marie glances lovingly at Manda by the river, her hair, backlit by the sun, looking like a halo, before Becker cuts to the two waking up together in La mère d’Eugène’s comfortable farmhouse bed. This a film that isn’t coy – it doesn’t gloss over sexual situations and it also depicts realistic violence despite the stringent censorship at the time it was made; although rated PG now it was an X upon release in the 1950’s. This is a very human examination of love at the turn of the century, a heritage film without the flimsy cuteness often associated with that particular genre, and it offers a distinctively modern interpretation for its time with all the gangs, girls, grief and guillotines normally ignored in favour of fluffy romance. This is a romantic historical drama for those seeking realism and grim actuality. The black and white cinematography not only accentuates the time and the characterisation but also the artistic premise of a tragic love story set in a socially diverse context.
Extras on the DVD are fascinating as Ginette Vincendeau gives a historic and analytical breakdown of the film and the documentary Casque D’or: au coeur des sentiments rightly states that the film is “a linear and simple film, but that’s the hardest to do” as well as linking it with Becker’s mentor Renoir’s La Bête Humaine (1938). There is also a great television interview with Simone Signoret from 1973, twenty two years after she starred in the film where she recalls that Becker was “adamant that he didn’t want it to be a costume drama,” whilst acknowledging the superb use of costume design in the film that was amusingly considered as dated as would be expected from a film set in 1904. This is a romantic tragic drama that is way ahead of its time and is fundamentally different from its perceived genre; it remains engaging over 60 years after it was made.