Midway through Jacques Becker’s sparkling, multi-faceted Casque d’or (1952), a wise old woman watches lovers Marie (Simone Signoret) and Manda (Serge Reggiani) enjoy what they don’t know are their last blissful moments together. They have found one of life’s rare oases, far removed from the chaos and violence of Paris as it crashes into the 20th century. Their escape to the country home of the woman, played with an earthy generosity by Odette Barencey, follows death, treachery – and the beginnings of love. With her ragged headscarf, sweater pulled off-kilter on her stocky frame and direct manner, she’s as much a part of the farm setting as the pair of hogs she slops with joyous reverence. When the lovers kiss and catch the old woman looking at them she says, “You hit it off”. “Is it that obvious?” Marie asks slyly. “At my age you get to know what’s what”, the woman quips. She affirms her rustic surroundings by scraping breadcrumbs from the table and popping them matter-of-factly into her mouth. Though young and jaded (or because of her youth and skewed view of life) Marie has also come to know what’s what.
Signoret’s Marie occupies the moral and visual centre of Casque d’or, Becker’s seventh feature. Like a black hole in deep space, she draws into her dense core a trio of male characters. She exudes an easy sexuality. But she can also reveal her vulnerability, depending on the demands of those around her and on her inbred but finite supply of toughness. Signoret has never shied from roles whose characters embrace startling pairs of opposites: neediness and independence, ferocity and meekness, innocence and dark experience: as the ageing former prostitute in Moshé Mizrahi’s La Vie devant soi (Madame Rosa, 1977), the drug-addicted Spanish countess in Stanley Kramer’s Ship of Fools (1965), and the unhappily married older woman in Jack Clayton’s Room at the Top (1959), a character The New York Times described as a “woman clutching at her last chance at happiness” (1). For all her swaggering, Marie finds herself clutching at a rapturous, fleeting happiness in Casque d’or.
Becker’s film marries the visible world of petty gangsters not afraid of death and dying with the interior worlds of the soul and the heart. Marie and Roland (William Sabatier) are on the outs. At a Sunday afternoon dance, she meets Manda an ex-con who’s reinventing himself as a carpenter. He’s even taken a new name. A loner (who happens to be engaged to his boss’ daughter), he’s connected to the gang by his lifelong friend, Raymond (Raymond Bussières). Manda dances with Marie, to the jealous fury of her sadistic beau, Roland. One dance and Roland is out. Marie also draws the attentions of the handsome gang leader, Felix Leca (Claude Dauphin), whose wine and spirits business fronts the gang’s activities. Leca will have Marie at any price, and the price is high. He conjures a vicious roundelay for Manda and Raymond to try to eliminate all competition for Marie. Leca comes close to succeeding, until Manda, who takes Roland’s life in a duel, endures the death of his close friend. All bets are off as Manda escapes from the paddy wagon taking him to prison, hunts down Leca and empties a pistol into him. Guilty of two murders, Manda dies at the guillotine as a numb Marie watches. Through it all, Marie has her face slapped, she slaps Manda, and Leca slaps one of his petty thieves. The sounds reverberate through the film, punctuating the dialogue and informing the narrative – and visual – jostle and heave.
Becker worked as an assistant to Jean Renoir on such films as Partie de campagne (1936) and La Grande illusion (1937), among others. That work paid handsomely. Becker is now often considered “among the very best filmmakers of the postwar era, and his accomplishments extended over a vast horizon of different skills: commercial productions, cinema d’auteurs, genre cinema and mise-en scene”, writes Remi Fournier Lanzoni in his French Cinema, From Its Beginnings to the Present. Becker’s characters “embodied coherence and truth” (2).
Becker makes sense of a nonsensical world in Casque d’or. People dance in the middle of the day. They fight duels with elegantly jewelled knives. They jut their hips, stick out their chins and dare each other to commit acts others only dream of. Becker’s riveting attention to the smallest gesture – the hand of a dying man caressing the face of his killer, the staccato rap of heels on wooden floors or of horses’ hooves on cobblestones, the loud report of all of those face slaps – focuses our attention on this world that seems to make sense only in the country, in Joinville, where the daily distractions of Parisian life are forbidden except in memory. Robert Le Febvre’s searching camera work forces us to watch the characters’ pain and triumph as they scramble through another day. Becker’s talent for immediacy – of sound, image and outpourings from the heart – are what matters in Casque d’or. Writing of a subsequent film, Lanzoni cites these words from François Truffaut: “The beauty of the characters in (Touchez pas au) Grisbi, even more than those in Casque d’or, comes from their quietness, from the economy of their movements” (3). Nevertheless, the quiet moments in Casque d’or stand out for their contrast with the clicks, clacks, clips, clops and slaps. The noisemakers don’t stand a chance against the gazes and glances, a nod of a head here, a sneer there. Hatred doesn’t require a soundtrack. Neither does love.
1. A. H. Weiler, “Room at the Top (1959)”, The New York Times 31 March 1959: http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9A02E7DC1138EF3BBC4950DFB5668382649EDE.
2. Remi Fournier Lanzoni, French Cinema, From its Beginnings to the Present, Bloomsbury, New York and London, 2002, p. 179.
3. Truffaut quoted in Lanzoni, p. 180.
Casque d’or (1952 France 94 mins)
Prod Co: Robert et Raymond Hakim Prod: Raymond Hakim, Robert Hakim, André Paulvé Dir: Jacques Becker Scr: Jacques Becker, Jacques Companéez Phot: Robert Le Febvre Ed: Marguerite Renoir Art Dir: Jean d’Eaubonne Mus: Georges Van Parys
Cast: Simone Signoret, Serge Reggiani, Claude Dauphin, Raymond Bussières, Gaston Modot, Paul Barge, Dominique Davray