"Sometimes a wind blows...
And the mysteries of love,
- Julee Cruise, "Mysteries of Love"
Love comes in all shapes and sizes. There is pure love, coming openly and cleanly from deep inside the heart. There is the love of convenience, the kind that is called up when needed, and put aside once the moment, or the marriage, is over. There is overheated passionate love, the sort that makes the hairs on the back of your neck bristle with anticipation, and the temperature of your entire body rise several sizzling degrees. And of course, there is the frigid polar opposite, the love born out of respect, consideration or concern. From the naturalness of parental love to the confusion of love unbound, it is amazing how one emotion can stand for so many divergent ideals.
But not all love is optimistic and substantive, however. Sometimes, love can arrive unexpectedly, overstay its welcome or wound deeper than the most well honed weapon. There is star-crossed love, a sentiment kept at bay by forces outside and ancillary of the smitten players' control. There are also the vile variants of love, the phony, fake pretenders to the emotional throne like lust, infatuation and physicality. These thieves of poignancy break into the soul and blind the bewildered into thinking they're in love, but in reality, it's just a substitute for a more eye-opening, heart wrenching experience to come.
And then of course, there are worst kinds of love, the ones that hurt the hardest and burn the deepest. There are some that might consider unrequited love to be the most foul of all, as it is a feeling left unconsummated, an ardor left to smolder and stain. Still others may push for the love that remains unspoken, kept in secrecy and suffered over from afar. But it's clear, from all the sonnets that have been written and the tragedies that have befallen, that doomed love is the most horrible kind of caring ever conceived. It contains all the facets of all the other loves, mixing them into a lethal cocktail that only destiny would find delightful in serving.
Don't believe it? Just ask Manda and Marie, the condemned couple forced to live out their all-consuming emotion in just a few fleeting weeks. In Jacques Becker's 1952 masterpiece, Casque D'Or, we witness just how chaste, and excruciating, such fatalistic and free-spirited love can be. While this damned duo may agree that it is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all, the price paid for such affection is steep...perhaps far too dear for even the most determined human heart to handle.
Marie is Casque D'Or, a prostitute and girlfriend of an incredibly jealous apache gang member named Roland. Working for his slimy crime boss Felix Leca, Roland and his buddies are thieves and murderers, pimps and pushers. It's the Belle Époque, turn of the century France and these felonious dandies strut around the streets and cafes as if they are aristocracy, and untouchable. One day, while visiting a local bistro along the river, Raymond (another of Leca's cronies) runs into an old friend from his prison days, Georges Manda. Introducing him to his band of brothers, Manda is instantly smitten by Marie, and the feeling is more than mutual. After a protective scuffle with Roland, our newfound couple enjoys a dance, falling even deeper into first sighted love with each other.
The next day, Roland demands satisfaction from Leca. Instead, the boss makes his own play for Marie, offering to "buy" her out from under her current beau. Still Marie cannot forget Manda, and she seeks him out at the carpenter's shop where he works. Naturally, this makes both Leca and Roland angry and even more outwardly aggressive. Another confrontation at a local nightclub and a body lies dead in a back alley. Leca sees the unexpected murder as a way of getting Manda out of the picture permanently. Little does he know that this decent, dedicated man will do just about anything, even sacrifice his own life, to protect the lady he loves.
Achingly beautiful to behold, told with such care and consideration that you never once notice the narrative elements falling into place, and possessed of a spirit so sad and yet so celebratory that it's an overall emotional tour-de-force, Jacques Becker's Casque D'Or is one of the best films ever made. Taking its title from both the golden sweep of curls worn by our heroine as well as the unearthly glow of life and passion that seems to cascade all around her (Casque D'Or translates roughly into the Golden Mask/Helmet), this is a movie that makes its case for perfection from the very first frame, and never lets up until the final fade out.
To describe too much of the plot would be to rob the narrative of its purity and its power. This is one of the best, more basic scripts ever crafted, a story that seems simultaneously mythic in its tragedy and operatic in its scope. It's amazing how Becker, a man who worked closely with the master, filmmaking genius Jean Renoir, during his most productive period (1932 – 39), both mimics and surpasses his mentor. Containing all of Renoir's usual narrative grace with very little of his outright artistic tendencies, Casque D'Or is a contradiction in cinematic terms. It is epic in its subtlety and spectacular in its small graces.
What Becker does here is so straightforward and yet so sly, so inventive and yet so foundational to film that you wonder why most directors don't follow his lead. The story of Casque D'Or is a simple doomed romance, a pair of longing lovers constantly separated and thwarted by fate and those outside who would try to alter it. If you graphed out the flow of the story, watching where the foundational facets take you, you'd see something easy and a bit elementary. But then, like a brilliant painter or a careful sculptor, Becker begins to shade and accentuate his story. He builds in details, using sound and imagery to suggest and subvert ideals. He cautiously hands out added dimensions to his characters, expanding and deepening their personality and individuality. Then, like a poetic advent calendar, he reveals, one by one, step by step, the hidden agendas and unspoken schemes which press the players toward their ever more obvious providence.
The result is like being lifted up inside a cloud of complete motion picture bliss. Like his primary influences, King Vidor and Renoir, Becker was a complete filmmaker, a man obsessed with every single aspect of his production. His casting had to be just right, his pacing appropriate and never rushed. The acting needed to reflect and refine the themes and symbols of the story, and the design was required to compliment and coincide with everything happening on screen. The effect is an artifice that never feels artificial, a make believe world that seems more genuine and more authentic than anything captured in cinema vérité or neo-realism. Certainly we are seeing a pretend place, a universe where criminals have the honor that the bourgeoisie lacks, and hookers have more than hearts of gold – they have hair and an aura of said precious metal as well. Becker uses this faultless balance between the pretense of pictures and the truth inside his character to paint a portrait of a time and place that you instantly fall in love with. And just like the individuals at the center of the story, your emotion is rewarded with trials, tribulations, good times and grief.
As it is named for her, Casque D'Or is really Marie's story. Certainly Roland and Manda, Leca and all the other ladies loitering around the gangs are important to the story, but Marie is different. She is the trophy that everyone wants, the glittering prize to place on your arm when you are stepping out. She is carnality and caring all rolled into one, a striking beauty blessed with a decent, if slightly damaged soul. She thinks nothing of brushing off the advances of even the most important of men, but falls instantly for a nobody whose only positive attribute is that he conveys a genuine expression of desire. There seems to be no other motive for this instant attraction except a chance for escape and elation – escape from the prison like world both of our lovers are locked in (Marie as a moll, Manda as an apprentice for a carpenter and paramour for his spinster daughter) and elation that they may have each found the soul mate they've searched for all these many years. Frankly, it would never be hard to imagine falling for Marie. As personified by the gorgeous and sensual Simone Signoret, Marie is the quintessential fantasy call girl: half saint, half slut and as open with her emotions as she is with her bed sheets.
Becker loves to contrast fact against ephemera, giving us the wholesome and uncontaminated couple ideal of Marie and Manda, but never letting us forget that, in their background and as part of their make up, lies a tattered and tarnished truth. As stated before, Marie is a woman of ill-repute, a gal whose not afraid to express her sentiments physically - and quite often. Though there is a halo of purity around her, it is created out of her caring, not her career. Manda is also a man of misdirected facets. He looks so kind and gentle, goofy little moustache topping off a wry little slice of a smile. But make no mistake about it, he is a criminal, a man capable of unholy acts of violence and slaughter, no matter how appropriate the punishment, or the vice of the victim may be. Carrying inside themselves different masks and mannerisms, when they are outside the underworld and in the perfection of their privacy (as when Manda hides out with Marie at Madame Eugene's countryside chateau) they have none of their blemishes or discoloration. But the minute they meet up with members of the criminal community, they seem instantly clouded by the connection.
As he does with the majority of his nuanced noir offerings, Becker plays with shadows and light all throughout Casque D'Or, from the most obvious uses of radiance (for the glimmer surrounding Marie and Manda) to the most restrained and delicate (the pre-dawn prison courtyard, preparing for the guillotine). The clubs the criminals frequent are white hot with light, while the alleys and walkways where murder and menace exist are cavernous and bleak. But visual hints are not the only delightful ruse Becker has up his filmmaking sleeve. There are many moments when, apparently or secretly, Becker is showing his storytelling hand, suggesting what may or may not come in the next few frames. When Manda meets Leca in his oasis of exile, a piece of important news is met by the clangor of bells (naturally, one wonders who they are tolling for...). After Roland slaps Marie for her inappropriate advances to Manda, their eyes meet and a smirk crosses the miserable man's face. "That's all", he whispers, and then adds with slow, silent evil, "...for now." From the condemning look in the carpenter's daughter's eyes, to the absence of light around Marie in the movie's final shot, Becker provides a veritable master class on how to accentuate your story with symbolic and suggested meaning.
With love as a central theme, it is easy to overlook some of the lesser concepts the director is working through. There is a definite clash of cultures and classes present in Casque D'Or, almost from the very first frames. As Leca and his gang enter an outdoor cafe, a snooty patron insults the party, considering them beneath her snobbish stature. When Leca and his gang are having their usual night out at a local club called the Angel Gabriel, a group of "slumming" socialites show up, thinking it will be "fun" to run around with the riff raff. Becker obviously sympathizes with the outsiders and the fringe elements of society, since he skewers the upper crust with political cartoon clarity.
But he also has a few foul words for the government as well. Casque D'Or presents a police force rife with corruption, an agency more or less at Leca's beck and call. They are easily outwitted by Manda and Raymond, and even Marie seems to have some success at shifting them from their honor-bound taxpayer duty. While the community of criminals is championed as being one so loyal that they'd disown their own leader if they ever learned of his treachery or collusion, it's the legal world that is wicked, wasting away in graft and gregarious behavior.
Of course, all these icons and ideas would not come to fruition if actors of unwavering skill and talent didn't express them. Becker is brilliant when it comes to creating his ensemble, providing the perfect types both physically and psychologically to illustrate his ideas. As stated before, in Simone Signoret, the director found Marie both strong and vulnerable, capable of great emotion and even grander manipulative skills. Like a classic bit of Greek statuary come to life, Signoret exudes controlled sexual charm, a corporeal bounty buried underneath that carefully coiffed helmet of golden hair. It's an amazingly rich performance, one that is obvious and almost all subliminal at the same time. And the same can be said for Serge Reggiani and his interpretation of Manda. Given an almost stereotypical artisan's facade (the workmanlike wardrobe, the commoner's hat and facial hair) Reggiani gives off the most antithetical image in the film. Manda is supposed to be the hopeless romantic, the sweet soul here to calm and cleanse the battered, bitter heart of the hooker he has fallen for. But instead, Manda is all a deception, a vicious, violent man kept in check by, not spurned on via, his love and longing for Marie.
When Becker chooses his close-ups, we also witness the cherubic, child-like image of Manda and the pure, unfettered persona of Marie. But then the director turns the tables on his characters, placing them in situations where their true colors must be revealed, and we get the inevitable transformation. Marie returns to her tired, world-weary ways, hoping to salvage her relationship with Leca. And when pressed up against it, or inflamed with unchecked ire, our hero becomes a brutal, ferocious fiend, butchering in cold blood, completely premeditated in his actions. These are the roadblocks set up by Becker between the audience, his actors and the roles they are essaying. Issuing a challenge he hopes all will embrace, he demands that we look beyond the basic and see that even the most hardened tart, or low profile criminal can contain elements of humanity that we instantly identify with.
All of Becker's characters are not so shaded or complex. As the main villain in the piece, Claude Dauphin's Leca is all corruption and callousness. Never batting an eye when it comes to breaking the laws, either of the regular society or his own unwritten codes of the underworld, he is evil personified and perfected. We cannot and will not sympathize with or find the friendly flaw in Leca's despicable manner. All we want is for this heinous, vindictive man to pay for all the pain he's caused, hoping that, somehow, karma will get the balance right.
Another straightforward, mostly sympathetic character is Raymond Bussieres's Raymond, old friend and prison pal of Manda. Though his role could be considered thankless, as he is more or less and expositional catalyst for many of the machinations to come in the plot (he introduces Manda to Marie, he gets Manda involved with Leca and his gang, etc.) he also represents a kind of mirror, reflecting back to the audience all the hidden emotions and unseen facets of the people he surrounds. He brings out the best in Manda, the worst in Leca, the most menacing in Roland and the altruism within himself. Raymond is the fulcrum upon which this entire tragedy balances, and how he goes, so goes the fate of everyone else. In a cavalcade of magnificent minor turns and ancillary wonders, this foursome of performers solidifies Casque D'Or's place in the pantheon of film.
Yet it's the power of love, how it moves and manipulates, undermines and underscores our life that is the key to understanding Casque D'Or's effectiveness. Like the very blood that flows in Manda and Marie's veins, like the air that they breathe or the tenderness that they share, their affection and devotion to one another trumps all other concerns, and forces each to face the truth about who they really are. Better than any judge or court of public opinion, the emotional certainty of love literally gets to the heart of an individual, opening them up and sucking them in. It transforms and entreats. It begs, borrows and steals. Without it, individuals feel worthless and disconnected.
But even on the occasions when it's within our grasp, love can deceive and misdirect. As beautiful as a series of canvases by a heartsick expressionist, yet filled with a kind of startling truth that renders all the pretense and prettiness unnecessary, Casque D'Or is gorgeous and grotesque, sadistic as well as sentimental. Like all potent tragedy, what Becker's brilliance best exemplifies is the knowledge that in the world of emotion, there is no more commanding, or compelling fatal flaw than love. It is the force that moves both Heaven and Earth, teases fate and gets that most omniscient of properties, the ability to decide who lives and who dies. Love indeed can be confusing and duplicitous. But sometimes, a wind does blow. And the mysteries of said sentiment do come clear. Casque D'Or illustrates this brilliantly. It is an incredible, insightful film.
Struck from a brand new print and just about as pristine and perfect as any film fan could want, Casque D'Or looks unbelievable in this new Criterion Collection transfer. The quandary with most monochrome prints is that they usually don't get the balance right between black and white. Most of the time, the print comes across as overly gray and murky, while other instances have the contrasts far too crisp to appear natural or normal (thanks to a little deft digital manipulation and edge enhancement, mind you). Criterion creates the perfect marriage of light to dark, shadow to luminescence for this impressive 1.33:1 full screen print. The image is amazingly dense, presenting incredible visuals (the lavish scope of the opening dancehall scene) and tangible atmosphere (the alley behind the Angel Gabriel club is very insidious in its appearance). Reflecting Becker's desire to accurately paint a portrait of his characters and their surroundings, Criterion's treatment of Casque D'Or is reminiscent of the work of expert art restorers. They bring the director's potent palette to vivid life.
Surprisingly atmospheric for an old fashioned Mono movie and containing a soundtrack that is rich in orchestration and ambiance Casque D'Or is presented in a clear, mostly hiss free audio experience that manages to avoid both the shrillness and distortion associated with older films. The minimal amount of French dialogue is flawlessly captured (with some easy to read, if just a tad too slang oriented English subtitles) and the entire mix is modulated to optimize the tone and tenure of the scenarios. While home theater enthusiasts may protest the lack of an immersive, multi-channel mix, purists will be pleased with how well Criterion has preserved the original soundtrack through their Dolby Digital remastery.
Providing more historical and personal background on Becker than the other recent DVD release of Touchez Pas Au Grisbi, Criterion embellishes this disc with a few fine film clips and some interesting archival footage. Primary among the added features are a series of interviews with individuals close to the production. Simone Signoret sits down to chat about her career, Becker and Casque in a segment from a 1963 French television series Cinepanorama. Sergio Reggiani is seen in a 1995 clip from the program La France en Films. And as part of that wonderful retrospective on cinema, Cineastes De Notre Temps, Becker's beginnings and influences are discussed by such friends and collaborators as Marguerite Renoir, Claude Dauphin and Francois Truffaut. There is even some silent footage (viewable with an optional commentary by film critic Philip Kemp) of Becker behind the scenes shooting Casque D'Or.
During their talks, both Signoret and Reggiani have nothing but praise for their director, calling him a very caring and considerate man (Sergio also has very kind words for Signoret and her spontaneous generosity). The Cineastes piece is far more in-depth, dealing with Becker's time with Jean Renoir, his own detailed shooting style and how Casque changed from its original idea (an executioner and a criminal and their fateful meetings) to the romance we now see. The Making of material is interesting, as it provides a chance to see Becker blocking out his scenes, staging the action for and because of the camera. All this content gives us a window into the world of this amazing filmmaker, providing a wonderful overview of Becker's career, his creative process and the films that resulted.
Film scholar Peter Cowie is also on hand to provide a full length feature commentary for the film, and his narrative is amazingly dense. Filled with trivia about actors, locales and production elements, it is a narrative that balances both analysis and facts to give us an overall understanding of Casque D'Or's importance as a story and as a piece of French cinema. Cowie offers us some pointed insights, highlighting the social, class and gender differences accentuated and explored by Becker, as well as dissecting the symbols and suggestions inherent in both the characters and their actions. Giving a basic biography of each of the major cast members and discussing some of the political and professional reasons for Becker's late in life embrace as an artist and filmmaker by his native country, this is an articulate, engaging discussion that adds clarity and context to an astonishing film. Doing what extras do best, the material provided by Criterion truly compliments Casque D'Or.
Perhaps the sole nagging question left after watching Casque D'Or, once the emotions have settled and the drama has died down and dissipated, is why the love between Manda and Marie had to be doomed. After all, even with their tainted pasts and questionable present, they seemed genuine and humane, connecting on a level that suggested an ability to rise above their reputations to actually enjoy a future lifetime of happiness. And their love was pure and focused, never questioned or ambiguous. What enemy conspired against the lovers to keep them apart and, ultimately, forever corrupted? Certainly, the criminals surrounding both of their lives played a part, be it Roland's petty envy to Leca's cruel covetousness. Yet even in the most felonious of situations, there appeared to be nothing but hope.
But jealously can come from the most unlikely of sources, and in the case of Marie and her simple, strong man of labors, it is fate, itself, that casts a gangrenous green eye on their coupling. Even in the most perfect of possibilities, individuals are not allowed to tempt the wheel of destiny, flaunting the power of their passion to test the tenets of providence to see if they mean business. What these lovers learned, all too tragically, is that when you push the parameters of chance, said cosmic sentiment pushes back, hard. Love may be all you need, buts its varying facets make catching the right kind feel like happenstance. Marie and Manda stumbled upon the most powerful of all passions...and they were punished. That's the story of, and the painful glory of love. And it is also the breathtaking beauty of Casque D'Or.
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