by Blake Backlash
To start with, things are idyllic. The opening shot of Casque d’Or finds us watching from a river bank as two boats are rowed towards us. The passengers are singing. They disembark and, as they race each other to an open-air dance garden, we can see by their clothes that this is the end of the 19th Century. The screen is alive with sunlight and laughter.
But those men getting off the boats are actually gangsters – and the handsome one with the dead eyes, the one doesn’t join in with the laughter, is Roland. A carpenter called George Manda (Serge Reggiani) is going to fall for Marie (Simone Signoret) who is… well, I suppose you could say that Marie is Roland’s girl, or even Roland’s moll, if the idea of Simone Signoret belonging to any man didn’t seem so ridiculous. So let’s just say Roland thinks she belongs to him, and he has a mean-streak to go with those dead eyes. So if my description of that opening idyll sounded a little dull, don’t worry, romance and fisticuffs are on the way. To prove things get tasty, here’s a picture of a fight in which George, our hero, knees a copper in the bollocks.
Jacques Becker, who directed Casque d’Or was a friend of Jean Renoir’s and worked as his assistant on several of Renoir’s films. If I was trying to describe Becker’s films to a friend, I’d probably try telling her that they form a kind of bridge between the films of Renoir and the crime dramas of Jean-Pierre Melville. Becker employs a naturalistic style similar to Renoir’s – he favours long takes and subtle, fluid camera movements. And like Melville, Becker seems infatuated with criminals and romantic notions of male camaraderie. Becker and Melville seem to share a belief that being a man means sticking by your mates and knowing that the real crime is the betrayal of a friend. A worldview no doubt shaped by the time both men spent in the French Résistance.
Women don’t always fare well in that kind of world. There’s a revealing moment in Casque d’Or that takes place at that dance garden. George’s friend Raymond is introducing him to the gang, and the camera moves from face to face as the introductions are made, each man’s greeting serving as a little insight into their character. Then, after these introductions are over, Raymond adds, almost as an afterthought ‘… and of course, our girls’ and all the women get to say ‘bonjour’ in unison. The contrast is so blatant that you wonder if it’s deliberate. Is Becker just not interested in the women? Or is he trying to tell us something about the way masculine conceptions of male friendship exclude women?
Because after all, Casque d’Or is a love story, so it needs women. And Simone Signoret’s performance has an intensity to it that makes her impossible to sideline. When Roland slaps Marie, her eyes burn, not just with defiance, but with a kind of amused disdain. That glow is hot enough to start burning away Roland’s sense of male pride and dignity. And, as the film unfolds, there’s a suggestion that the gangsters’ notions of what dignity is are more about appearances than reality. The man we care most about is George, whom the film explicitly positions outside the gang. Even the way he looks sets him apart from them. While they wear tight fighting, sharply cut suits, George’s clothes are looser and softer – working man’s clothes, more about practicality than stylised masculinity. Serge Reggiani’s performance emphasises this distinction. The lines around Reggiani’s eyes when he looks at Signoret make him seem tender, anxious and besotted. He looks like a man enchanted by the compassion he feels for the woman he’s in love with. It’s a look that couldn’t be further from the expressions of studied, indifferent cool adopted by the gangsters.
The contrast is most stark in the differences between Georges and Felix Leica, the gang’s boss. Leica dresses immaculately and gives his men lectures about the right sort of hats to wear, along with the more familiar talks about not squealing to the cops. When we first encounter him he’s splitting up the loot from the last job, giving each man his share. During the split, they discover that some of the cash has gone missing – someone on the job has helped themselves to a little bonus. This is the point where a Hollywood villain would probably start cutting off pinkies to find out who’d pocketed the cash. Leica just calmly makes up for what’s missing from his own share of the money. So at first he seems to embody the kind of unruffled criminal decency usually celebrated in the films of Becker and Melville. But Leica is a bastard. It’d be giving too away much to say what he does. Still, it’s maybe enough to say that not only does Leica’s professed belief in some kind of hoodlums’ code turn out to hollow, he also uses the code, and the way others seek uphold it, to manipulate and even control the men around him.
Casque d’Or was made in 1952, when memories of the French experience during the war were still fresh and the country’s president was Vincent Aurio, a socialist who had fought with the Resistance. The French Fourth Republic grew out of the Resistance, De Gaulle was a hero, and as such the emerging sense of what it meant to be a good French citizen, perhaps particularly what it mean to be a good French man, was bound up with a celebration of camaraderie, honour and loyalty. Casque d’Or seems to me to celebrate such values. But at the same time the film draws attention to what the vulnerabilities of a world-view based on such values might be.
But the film wears such thematic concerns lightly and, god, it’s fun to watch. There’s a scene where two characters face off against one another in an alleyway behind a bar. They take part in a kind of thug duel, where a knife is thrown into the dirt between them and each man races towards it, before they start to fight. The way Becker paces the scene, and how he uses sound and silence make it for a cracking set-piece. It packs a real primitive punch, particularly at the point where one man seems to trying to pull his opponent’s face off like it were a mask.
Casque d’Or is also one the best movie love stories. Even an average filmmaker can evoke something of what it’s like to fall for someone. There’s something about watching a glowing screen in the dark with strangers that seems to plug directly into our longings and desires. But what, for me, distinguishes the best cinematic depictions of love, is that they also evoke a feeling of what it’s like to find that love being reciprocated. They remind us not only of what it feels like to love, but also of what it feels like to be loved in return. They put us in touch with our memories of tenderness and intimacy – that held in your bones knowledge that sharing this moment with this person is exactly where in the world you need to be. There’s a moment in Casque d’Or where George wakes up, dresses, gets a bowl of coffee and brings it to Marie that beautifully conjures up just this sense of being held in the depths of reciprocated love.
It’s because we can almost touch in their love that we want George and Marie to triumph over the manipulations of Felix Leica. As with so many of the best love stories, Casque d’Or makes us feel that jumble of anger and empathy that comes from wanting to shelter the lovers from those forces that would seek to vanquish them. The last shot is heart-wrenching.
Casque d’Or is released on Blu-ray today by STUDIOCANAL.