Jacques Becker himself said that he had the paintings of Pierre Auguste Renoir in mind when he made what is widely regarded as his masterpiece, Casque d’Or (Golden Helmet). The film’s vivid, bustling humanity, such as in scenes where working-class couples dance in close quarters at a riverside dance hall, recall, for instance, Renoir’s 1876 Bal du Moulin de la Galette, or even his 1883 La danse à Bougival, where only a single couple is shown dancing, but the extent to which the pair fill the tall, narrow canvas emphasizes the tightness of the space they are inhabiting. (The latter scene may be less than joyous, for the cramped quality might imply the woman’s feeling of being somewhat trapped—a suggestion that arises from the discrepancy between the man’s ardent posture as he faces her and his partner’s demure expression as she looks away.) Becker’s film also contains overpowering images of beauteous Nature, with which Renoir’s paintings are full. Indeed, the gorgeous opening shot of a recreational row across silken river water recalls Renoir’s 1873 Canotier d’Argenteuil, while the intoxicating lushness of trees recalls, for one, his 1874 Sentier dans les bois. But something struck me as I revisited Casque d’Or, which is set in both Paris and Joinville in the countryside in the summer of 1898. While Renoir’s paintings are bursting with children, there is only one child, in a walk-on, in Becker’s entire film. He is a boy delivering a note—a wan, surly boy a world apart from Renoir’s fresh, warm, vibrant girls. Becker is, I submit, still thinking of Renoir here, but in an ironical point-counterpoint way; for the absence of glowing very young life in Casque d’Or befits a film that ends bleakly with one half of a romantic couple watching, from a hotel window, as the other half is beheaded in the courtyard below for the crime he committed, in a sense, on her behalf.
Pierre Auguste isn’t the only Renoir with whom we associate Jacques Becker. In the thirties Becker was apprenticed to Jean Renoir, Pierre Auguste’s son, and was part of the cooperative, including Renoir, responsible for the brilliant film La vie est à nous (1936), an eclectic, Brechtian advertisement for the French Communist Party on the occasion of upcoming elections. That same year, Renoir made the beautiful Une partie de campagne, from Maupassant, which rivets with exquisite irony a doomed young couple’s one sexual moment together in the country. The film, virtually an hommage by Renoir fils to Renoir père, may also have lighted on Becker’s mind.
In Casque d’Or, the lovers aren’t quite so young as the pair in Une partie de campagne; the fellow has already done a stint in prison. Working as a carpenter, he is now trying hard to “go straight”; he is even engaged to marry the boss’s unattractive daughter. Can bourgeois calcification not be far ahead? Well, yes; for “Georges Manda” (a new identity for what he hoped would be a new, crime-free life) meets Marie and the two fall instantly in lust, in love, in mutual rapture. (Initially, her eyes beckon him when she is dancing with another man!) But the relationship is doomed from the start because of the mob intrigue in which it is embroiled. Marie is being kept (and abused) by Roland, who is a member of a criminal street gang led by Felix Léca, the even more brutal dandy who also covets her. Manda kills Roland is a knife fight. Léca, who has a policeman in his pocket, “informs” on Manda’s friend Raymond, also a gang member, in order to pry Manda away from Marie and into confessing. But before Manda goes to the guillotine, he kills Léca, who has tricked Marie into bed with him on the false promise that he will get Manda free.
The story, based on an actual (and famous) turn-of-the-century murder case, provides a plot whose most interesting matter is the degree of ambiguity that attaches itself to Léca’s motivation at every turn. Here he seems calculating; there, just lucky—until his luck runs out and, a quivering coward, he is cornered and shot down like a dog by Manda. The film implies a connection between Manda’s being able to do this and the loyalty of his mob that Léca sacrifices as a result of how he treats Raymond. Léca, obsessed with trumping Manda over Marie, has blown his own cover.
The protagonist is Marie, whose drive for independence collides with the role that society permits women at the time. As a result, her being a prostitute becomes a kind of metaphor. The agreeable way that Manda treats her, so different from the abusive way other men treat her, links their relationship to that of the John Wayne and Claire Trevor characters in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939); our hearts are broken by Manda’s execution precisely because Manda is the man whom Marie deserves. Moreover, this is the key to understanding Marie’s final gesture, her watching the execution. Manda’s gracious treatment of her requires this repayment of respect on her part. The final look of horror on Marie’s face tells us that Manda’s death doubles as her own.
Simone Signoret (with her “helmet” of golden tresses) is superb as Marie. It is, along with her work in Room at the Top (Jack Clayton, 1958), certainly her most celebrated role. Here is a quintessential portrait of a strong-willed, feisty, highly intelligent woman who, in order to survive, must capitulate to convention even as she resolutely chafes against it. Georges Sadoul refers to hers as a “complex and sensuous role” that finds Signoret, “in the full bloom of her beauty,” giving “the performance of her career.” Hear, hear.
Let me add a symbolical wrinkle to the text of this extraordinary film. I detect a submerged resonance. Becker’s mentor, Renoir, reappeared (from the U.S.) after the war not quite the same man that Becker remembered. Renoir’s politics had shifted to the more conservative side of the ledger, although his love of humanity, inconsistently, continued unabated. A number of things connect Becker’s film to Renoir. One is the use of the same actor, Gaston Modot, who played the gamekeeper in Renoir’s masterpiece, The Rules of the Game (1939); in Casque d’Or, interestingly, Modot plays the man to whom, as a carpenter, Manda is apprenticed—the man who is slated to become his father-in-law. Too, Marguerite Renoir edited Casque d’Or; Jean’s wife, Marguerite had also edited Une partie de campagne and Rules of the Game. But, above all, perhaps, is Simone Signoret’s Marie’s resemblance to subjects of Renoir’s father’s paintings. Isn’t it possible, whether consciously or otherwise, that Becker is chiding his former mentor with his political retreat? Isn’t it possible that Marie, at some level, represents Renoir’s original inspiration, which derived, at least in important part, from Renoir’s father’s apprehension of the world? Isn’t it possible that Manda’s execution and Marie’s attendant horror and grief all represent the world’s loss of the Jean Renoir of the 1930s, when Renoir lighted the path for a kid in his twenties, Becker, by which to pursue true cinema? “I am going your way,” Becker may be saying to Renoir, “but you are not, O my spiritual father, who have lost your way!”
The next time, view Becker’s film through the prism of these suggestions, no matter how many other times Casque d’Or already has broken your heart. You may find, as a result, all the Renoir references, père and fils, coming together to a point of greater poignancy than ever before they’ve come together for you.
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