Casque d’or: Tenderness and Violence

Jan 18, 2005

Along with Touchez pas au grisbi and Le Trou, Casque d’or is now widely recognized as the summit of Jacques Becker’s achievement as a filmmaker, a distillation of everything that’s most personal and central to his vision. All the more surprising, then, to realize that the material came to him fourth-hand, having been successively turned down by Julien Duvivier, Yves Allégret, and Henri-Georges Clouzot—and that when Casque d’or was first released many French critics were unimpressed, finding it a letdown after his previous films. What most disappointed them, it seems, was that Becker—hitherto seen as the chronicler of contemporary French society—had made a period film.

Yet Becker was determined that Casque d’or should not be, in any conventional sense, a period film. “I wanted my actors to behave as though they were living at the time,” he explained, “not as if they were wearing costumes.” And in that he fully succeeded: His recreation of turn-of-the-century Paris is lovingly detailed and exact, and within it his cast move, speak, and hold themselves as in their native habitat.

This was Becker’s great gift as a filmmaker: to conceive and re-create a world complete in every scrupulously captured detail. Attuned as he was to connections between the trappings of a way of life and the emotions engendered within it, Becker could fix the sense of a period, of a specific juncture of time and place, with quiet precision. Lindsay Anderson, one of Casque d’or’s earliest champions, noted how here as elsewhere in his work Becker “is fascinated by objects and decors, and the way they can reveal the thoughts, beliefs, and emotions of the men and women who use them.” Every character in the film, no matter how briefly glimpsed, is precisely characterized, giving us the sense that (as Becker himself put it) they all “go on living off-screen, between scenes, even before the film starts.” It’s a world seen whole, neither romanticized nor sensationalized, but presented as a complex, living community in its own right.

Add to this something Becker may well have learned from Jean Renoir, whom he assisted during most of the 1930s: his close involvement with all his characters, even the least likeable. “All you can tell on the screen,” he once remarked, “is the story of yourself,” and at their best his films glow with fellow-feeling.

At the center of the richly evoked world of Casque d’or are the doomed lovers Marie (known as “Casque d’or” for her golden hair) and Manda. Becker was a consummate director of actors, subtle, considerate, and responsive, and they in turn responded warmly to him. In this film he drew from Simone Signoret and Serge Reggiani the performances of their careers. Two years earlier, they’d appeared together in the opening episode of Max Ophüls’s La Ronde, and Becker must have noticed how well they set each other off. Now he teamed them again, and the chemistry between them is palpable—Reggiani tender and tenacious beneath an appearance of frail taciturnity, Signoret at once self-assured and vulnerable, glowing from the screen in her ripe sensuality.

Most of the action takes place in the streets and smoky estaminets of Paris, in narrow alleys and courtyards shadowed by the threat of violence and death. But at several key points in the film we escape into rural idylls where life and love can flourish. The film opens with a scene that harks straight back to both Renoirs, père et fils, even to Maupassant—couples rowing on the river on a warm Sunday afternoon, singing, mooring at a riverside café to drink and dance. It’s there that Marie and Manda first catch sight of each other, her eyes constantly seeking his as she’s waltzed around by her boorish gangster boyfriend Roland. We’re returned to this scene, at the very end of the film, in a fantasy where the lovers are dancing slowly, eternally down the now deserted terrace to the strains of George Van Parys’s achingly nostalgic waltz. “In my work,” Becker once wrote, “I don’t want to prove anything except that life is stronger than everything else.” Hard to imagine that any of the directors previously assigned to the film could have brought off this haunting, life-affirming coda—or would even have tried. But Becker’s optimism never feels sentimental or imposed; it grows organically out of his warm engagement with his material.

For Becker (as for Renoir) flowing water always brings out his most lyrical and expansive side. And midway through the film he grants his lovers another brief rural, riverine idyll. Waking from their first night together in a plump double bed, Marie smiles lazily at her lover. A few moments later, having fetched her a bowl of coffee, he hands it to her through the open window where she stands with her golden hair tumbled loose over her nightdress. Fresh coffee in the sunlit morning; the smell of lovemaking on rumpled sheets; rarely in cinema has the sweet transience of erotic passion been more vividly evoked.

This interlude is all the more affecting for the darkness that surrounds it. Becker derives a good deal of amusement from his underworld characters, with their formal dress and pretensions to gentility; but these are no harmless figures of fun. We’re never allowed to forget that the gang members, and especially their boss, Leca (a beautifully judged performance of affable malice from Claude Dauphin), are killers, treacherous and callous. The showdown between Manda and Roland is a short, brutal affair with no trace of chivalry, fought out in the shadows of a grimy, barrel-strewn yard behind the gang’s favorite estaminet. There’s no music on the soundtrack to whip up the tension; all we hear is the distant barking of dogs and the grunts and gasps of the two men struggling on the ground. Only one tiny, unsettling detail softens the scene: as Manda plunges the knife into Roland’s back, the dying man’s hand brushes his opponent’s face as if in a tender caress.

The plot of Casque d’or was inspired by an actual criminal case of 1901, and the film’s release was briefly delayed when the widower of the real-life “Casque d’or,” Amélie Hélie, tried to take out an injunction against it, claiming it violated his late wife’s privacy. The case was soon thrown out when it was revealed that Mlle Hélie had appeared onstage, playing herself, in a drama entitled Casque d’or et les Apaches.

Becker’s disappointment at the coolness of the film’s reception in France was partly assuaged by the enthusiastic reviews that greeted it in Britain, where Signoret’s performance received a British Film Academy award. And within a few years he would find himself vindicated in France, when the influential young critics of Cahiers du cinéma—soon to become the directors of the Nouvelle Vague—acclaimed it as his finest film. “Casque d’or, at times funny, at times tragic, proves that we can surpass parody,” wrote François Truffaut, “we can look at the picturesque and bloody past and evoke it with tenderness and violence.” Tenderness and violence—Becker’s masterpiece summed up in a phrase.