During La Belle Époque in France, life seemed good, and for even the lowlifes of the nation it was possible to have a fine old time, as with the gang of Félix Leca (Claude Dauphin) who today have spent the afternoon boating on the river and now file into an open air dance to continue their fun. However, just as they are finding somewhere to sit, one of their number, Raymond (Raymond Bussières) bumps into a reformed old friend of his, a carpenter named Georges Manda (Serge Reggiani) who he nicknames Jo. One of the molls, Marie (Simone Signoret) takes an instant liking to him...
Which doesn't do much for her boyfriend, naturally, in this, the Jacques Becker film to receive the most adulation in his lifetime, though far from universally. Famously, Casque d'Or was a disaster in his home country, but someone must have had faith in it for it was released abroad and went onto great success, especially in Britain where it seemed to capture the image of La Belle France that went down a storm there. The sophistication, the louche qualities, the romance: it was all here, yet while this may have been purposefully nostalgic in its tone, it was by no means fluffy and rose tinted in its plotting.
Indeed, it built up to a very bleak ending, which made its themes of enjoying the good times while you could all the more noticeable. For Marie (who the film is named after, somewhat oddly, as her hair is supposed to resemble a golden helmet - not the most flattering description you would have thought but there you go) and Manda there is an instant attraction between them, but almost from the start it's heading for trouble, and not only for the couple but for all those around them. Just think: that chance meeting, which might never have happened at all if they hadn't been in that precise place and that precise moment, ends up in heartbreak, betrayal, murder and more death.
This should have made the film poignant, and in the views of many of its fans it did, but the way in which circumstances conspire to mess everyone up simply because one man fell in love with one woman spoke to a more cynical mood than Becker might have intended. He might have been tugging the heartstrings, and this was based on a true story, but the overwhelming sense of regret tended to muffle the swooning romance of the connection at the heart of the piece. You could ignore the unexpectedly scathing take on how corrosive people can be even when love is involved (a lot of characters get slapped in this, for example) because the manner it was mounted was so exquisite in recreating a golden age, but it was certainly there, in the background.
And growing more blatant as the story wound its way to its miserable conclusion. As if to say, no loving relationship can end well because it has to be broken off eventually, whether by fate, design or accident, Marie and Manda spend most of their love under pressure, first from her boyfriend's jealousy and then from the police when it all goes horribly wriong. That make hay while the sun shines element is keenly portrayed when Becker took his cast and crew out to the idyllic countryside, but even then the world outside the lovers' bond is always tangible, encroaching until impossible to dismiss and leads to tragedy, as much a tragedy for foiling what could have been a chance at happiness for two people very well suited to one another. Are we intended to think, well, at least they had those hours together where they could tell one another how they felt and bask in one another's emotions? Pretty cold comfort judging by the way this drew to a close. Music by Georges Van Parys.