The French Belle Epoque, which lasted from the Naughty Nineties to the start of the First World War, was a dappled age of straw boaters and dapper moustaches, silk dresses, bonnets and boat trips under the champagne-coloured sun. The perfect scenario for a story of doomed love and violent gangsters.
Casque d’or begins with just such a boat trip to the bucolic Joinville, just outside Paris, (an area now not so lovely at all). Georges Manda, or Jo, and his friends head to a restaurant for a relaxing Sunday outing by the Seine, but everything changes when he sees Marie. For the rest of the film, Jo, and everything else, revolves around Marie. Unsurprisingly, as she is a very striking beauty indeed with a perfectly voluptuous figure, sumptuous lips, and cheekbones towering over acres of alabaster skin. On top of this loveliness sits her gigantic, shiny blonde bouffant from which the film takes its name. Casque d’or literally means golden helmet.
Signoret’s performance is as numinous as her hair. A gangster’s moll, she is tough, yet vulnerable, and deadly certain of what she wants. It is no surprise that one Eunice Waymon was so taken with the film that she adopted the stage name Nina Simone after Simone Signoret’s striking performance.
Her new man, Jo is now an honest carpenter. Played by Serge Reggiani, an Italian-born French actor who went on to become an acclaimed chanson singer from the 1960s, Jo is the sort of plain-spoken good guy that it is impossible not to root for – especially when the two main baddies, Roland (Raymond Bussières) and Félix Leca (Claude Dauphin), are so unpleasant. Roland is her hot-headed jealous lover and Félix, a far more calculating, and more threatening, gangland boss. The scene is set for a terrible collision between the two.
The story has its origins in fact. Casque d’or was the nickname of Amélie Hélie, a French prostitute in the 1900s whose two gangster lovers, Joseph Manda and Felix Leca, were sent to Devil’s Island after a knife fight to gain her attentions. The characters may have lent their names and rivalry to the film, but director Jacques Becker used this kernel to his own devices.
The key role of class is apparent from the beginning. A group of respectable day trippers tut-tut when they see Jo and his friends, and later some very wealthy ladies and gents slum it in the bar favoured by the gangsters. Casque d’or is a film of disparities and contraries. Those who at first seem respectable, turn out to be less so. Possibly the most striking contrast is between the purity of Jo and Marie’s love and the grim realities of life.
All golden ages are accompanied by wistfulness; sorrow for its passing. This is more acute in the case of the Belle Epoque, over which the First World War looms. But Becker doesn’t let us feel too melancholic at the passing of a time of plenty, because he never lets us believe that this is as uncomplicated and simple as legend has it.
Still, the tale of Jo and Marie is supremely romantic, not just because he takes on all rivals for her love, but because the love is doomed. In reality, the real Leca and Manda were sent to the French penal colony of Devil’s Island in 1902 never to return. Another 12 years after that, thousands more ‘moustached archaic faces’, as Philip Larkin described them, queued to join the armies of Europe, many of whom would also not come back.
Casque d’or is available on Blu-Ray from Monday 7, November, 2012.