Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet may have set the standard for stories of star-crossed lovers, but by no means was it the first of its kind. It's a tale as old as time, surviving centuries of riffs and renditions thanks to the enduring quality of its core values. In 1952, filmmaker Jacques Becker (Le Trou) assumed the task of carrying on this storied tradition with the French drama Casque d'Or. While not as resonant as it hopes to be, it remains an effective piece of work regardless, a lyrical tragedy delivered with just the right touch of romanticism.
Marie (Simone Signoret) is a spitfire who's since resigned herself to serving as the arm candy of temperamental gangster Roland (William Sabatier). Manda (Serge Reggiani) is a reformed convict who hopes to walk the straight and narrow by working as a carpenter. The pair meet at a riverside club at the turn of the century and immediately catch each other's eye. Their budding relationship comes much to the chagrin of not only Roland but also Leca (Claude Dauphin), a gang leader who has eyes for Marie himself. As Marie and Manda become drawn closer to one another, forces conspire to drive them apart. Manda's chances of living a normal life with his newfound love become less likely after Leca's underlings forge a plan to entice him into their criminal fold — or else.
I hate it whenever a romantic film hoists the love between its characters on the audience. Like a comedy that forces its jokes, it doesn't feel natural to be told every three seconds that these people are still in love. Casque d'Or is partially guilty of this crime, taking melodramatic steps near the end that aren't quite earned by the events beforehand. Still, it's not as severe a case as most pictures, as Becker has viewers buying into the plot more often than not.
At its core, Casque d'Or (which translates to "Golden Helmet," referencing Marie's blonde locks) is a film that conveys downbeat themes with an illumated sense of storytelling. Instead of drowning itself in seriousness, Becker blesses the characters with their own levels of realism and experience. Everyone knows the score at all times, and although Marie and Manda would love to share a life together, they realize that the road to getting it is going to be a bumpy one. Marie is an especially worldly character, feisty to the bitter end, yet silently regretful of the actions that forced her to shack up with some whiny gangster.
Casque d'Or doesn't feature a lot of people who wear their feelings on their sleeves. You're always pretty sure of which characters fill what roles, but even then, their precise motivations and behaviors are a bit more complex. A prime example of this is the crime boss, Leca. On the surface, he seems like a congenial chap, far from the sort of teeth-gnashing villain mobsters tend to be portrayed as. But Dauphin's performance bestows the part with a truly devious quality, one in which you don't realize how evil he is until it's too late. Pay close attention to Leca, and he'll soon reveal himself to be a subtle but sinister puppet master, setting into motion events designed to insert himself into Marie's life. Just as well, Signoret sizes him up in an entirely different role as Marie, whose world-weary cynicism slowly gives way the more she falls in love with Manda. Reggiani is also very good as Manda, whose attempts to escape the underworld's grasp are constantly thwarted by Leca's crew. You could say that the hotheaded Roland is one of the few one-dimensional characters here, but he doesn't matter much in the overall story and gets scant screen time accordingly.
As I mentioned earlier, Casque d'Or takes a turn for the weepy in the third act. While I admired the craft and care put into building up the story's key relationship, it wasn't quite enough to convince me of the dramatic turn of events the film came to adopt. But in terms of being a tender and well put-together drama, Casque d'Or comes out rather well, another shining gem in the Criterion Collection's crown that I hope more cinephiles will seek out.