The passion and mores of a lost era, turn-of-the-century France, is recreated in Jacques Becker’s great romantic melodrama from 1952.
One of the more underappreciated French filmmakers was Jacques Becker, who brought a great deal of style and intelligence to the cinema in the 1940s and 50s. In 1952 he directed what many consider his masterpiece, Casque d’Or, which translates as “Helmet of Gold” but which actually refers to the enticing blonde hair of its main character, a courtesan named Marie.
Serge Reggiani plays Manda, an ex-con trying to live a new life as a carpenter in 1890s Paris. He falls in love with Marie (played by Simone Signoret), the kept woman of a petty thief, part of a gang run by the master criminal Felix Leca (played by Claude Dauphin). Jealousy leads to an act of violence, and Manda must run from the law, while Marie chooses to go with him. But Leca has decided that he must possess her.
The film’s evocation of the Belle Époque is rich and lovingly detailed, without the stiffness and restraint that often plagues period films. The first sequence, with boats arriving on the riverbank from a pleasure outing, proceeding to a lengthy scene at an open-air dance hall in which Manda first meets Marie, is a masterpiece in itself—the camera flowing with seemingly effortless grace, like the dancers, while we are thrust into the story’s current with a minimum of exposition. The editing and dialogue (Becker based his screenplay, written with Jacques Companeez, on actual police records) creates a novelistic sense of vividness and immediacy, and the photography is gorgeously crisp. Best of all, the film captures a feeling for old world behavior. Here are no modern romantic notions dressed up in old costumes—the casual stoicism, the shared beliefs about friendship and honor, are quite evident from the expressions and body language of the performers.
The film might not have been so memorable, however, with a more conventional actress in the lead. But the young Signoret projects a passion and willfulness that is bigger than life, and she has an imposing physical presence as well. This was really the breakthrough role that got her recognized internationally. You can understand why men would fight to be with Marie, and she is convincing both as a forbidding woman of allure and as a woman desperately in love. Reggiani is fine as her lover—it’s refreshing to see such an unassuming male lead. But as the amoral, self-assured criminal boss, Dauphin almost steals the movie. He plays the part with a light touch—we believe in his ability to dominate others through his mind rather than through force or brutality. The story, involving plots and double-crosses and sudden escapes, can seem a bit hard to believe, but the underlying tone of love and longing is unforgettable. We get to taste paradise on earth in the love of Manda and Marie, so the bitterness of worldly fate is not some cold conclusion, but a real sadness for what might and should have been.
Casque d’Or is available on a Criterion DVD.