Friday, 9 August 2013

Review: Casque D'or (1952)

Casque D'Or (1952) is a classic French story that tells of the real-life Leca-Manda scandal. Written and directed by Jaques Becker, the doomed romance evokes the Belle epoque period and stars Simone Signoret (Les diaboliques), Serge Reggiani (The Pianist) and Claude Dauphin.

Gangster's moll, Marie played by Simone Signoret is referred to as a whore by the locals. Roland, a gangster, rules Marie with his barbaric fist. Marie meets Georges (Serge Reggiani), an honest carpenter, at a dance and it's love at first sight. Roland becomes jealous and after a number of fractious meetings between Marie and Georges, Roland decides to confront Georges behind a club before an audience of fellow gangsters and the two partake in a brutal fight. Mid-fight Georges gains access to a knife that had been thrown between them.

Georges stabs Roland in the back after a brief scuffle, killing him instantly. When the police arrive at the scene everyone runs, including Marie, who attempts to escape from the gangs by seeking refuge at a nearby village. Eventually Georges finds Marie at the village and romance blossoms between the two. Their world is shaken when Georges is brought word that his close friend, Raymond, has been arrested for the murder of Roland. Rival gangster FĂ©lix placed blame on him in an attempt to bring Georges out of hiding and seek revenge. As Georges is dragged back into reality, his romance with Marie becomes dangerous and filled with tumultuous twists and ultimately tragedy...

Director Jacques Becker (Le Trou) is renowned for his straightforward directorial style. Casque D'Or explores the notion of personal freedom and humanity by focussing on the reactions of characters and subtle suggestions as opposed to explosive, high octane thrills. Casque D'Or's heart beats the loudest during the murder scene. In the back yard of a bistro, two men fight over Marie. The focus initially is on the contortion of body parts and the animalistic grunts from those fighting. The soundtrack is silent, but for the grunts of the characters and the barking of some distant dogs. Becker pulls his audience in and the silence increases tension as the pair attempt to outdo the other and gain control of a knife. Silence is the Becker's deadliest weapon. As the knife enters Roland’s back he wants you to feel it and much to his credit, you do. The scene was mimicked somewhat, years later in Lindsey Anderson's If (1968) where the director was more literal in his approach by juxtaposing imagery of contorted bodies and feline predators.

Becker's subtle scene is over with minimal fuss, but succeeds greatly in packing a memorable punch. When Marie and Georges meet, Becker spins his characters wildly in dance leaving his audience dizzy and disorientated in Marie's desire. Later, when Marie and Georges reunite in their country refuge, the director gets to the heart of their relationship by focussing on the joys of a day they spend together. He shows them waking up late in the morning on rumpled, white sheets. Manda brings breakfast to Marie, as the sun shines through an open window. The scene captures the excitement of new romance and reveals the tenderness of the characters who we have only witnessed prior to this as disconnected and murderous. It is clearly imperative to Becker that his characters are more than tools to move along the plot. They are lovingly humanised. Becker paints the Belle Epoque period with the skill of a classic artist. His camera consumes each landscape and studies the detail of the bustling bistros. This story is based on truth and Becker's attention to detail ensures that the setting is as real as possible and that the aesthetic of the film is as perfect and believable as the incredible performances.

This is very much Signoret's film. Even during the scenes when she is not on screen, her character is so overwhelming that her presence always felt. Occasionally, the acting from the secondary male characters is somewhat hammy. The men operate in packs and act off of one another, yet Marie works alone, gliding through the film with beauty and grace and a mass of untouchable inner-strength. True love is the only thing that can crack through her otherwise leaden stoicism. The lingering close-ups of Marie's face reveal the genuine sentimentality that Simone Signoret draws upon to deliver her performance and dually gives prominence to the confidence the director has in his femme-fatale lead. Marie's buxom blonde and scrawny, moustachioed Georges make an odd pair. Physically, the two do not conventionally suit but Signoret and Reggiani have an undeniably great chemistry together. From the moment the two spin in one another’s arms, you’re swept up in the whirlwind of their romance and continue to champion their affair until its tragic end.

Most directors would take advantage of the suspenseful climax, but Becker chooses to leave nails unbitten by emphasising on the emotions beyond the events. Finally, released on Blu-Ray the disc includes a featurette, At the Heart of Emotions – The Legend of Golden Marie, a short documentary that explains the film’s journey from page to screen. It’s a welcome release that will thoroughly satisfy existing fans and win plenty new. With an excellent transfer, the stunning imagery can be viewed as the director intended, a release that perfectionist Becker, would most definitely be proud of. Casque D'Or is an incredible and timeless composition that captures a forgotten era imaginatively and with great conviction.

The romantic tragedy is nothing new, but 60 years since its release, Casque D'Or with its focus on humanity, is still startlingly original. Becker has created a lyrical masterpiece, a perfect fusion of a gangster and romance and that is largely down to his female lead. Marie's cheek is frequently subjected to a ferocious slap, but it's the confidence in the director's prolonged close ups on Simone Sigournet's face that provide the film's most effective and memorable clout.

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