Jacques Becker, the subject of a nine-film retrospective at BAMcinématek (September 12 through 29), had a small output before his comparatively early death in 1960, aged 53. Becker turned to filmmaking through his close friendship with Jean Renoir. He was an assistant on most of Renoir’s great films of the 1930s—and can be seen in the role of an English officer in Grand Illusion. Becker’s own career as a director of features began during the Occupation when he returned to France after two years in a German prisoner-of-war camp. Like Renoir, his cinema is deeply humanist and non-judgmental; all of his best films involve a small group of characters linked by love or friendship, interacting within a clearly defined social milieu.
Goupi Mains Rouges (It Happened at the Inn, 1943) is a black comedy about an extravagant peasant family that closes its ranks against outsiders. Set in a Parisian fashion house, with a wardrobe designed by Rochas, Falbalas (Paris Frills, 1944) is an invaluable document of French haute couture during the Nazi Occupation. Antoine and Antoinette (1947) has a plot of sorts concerning a lost lottery ticket, but Becker’s main interest in this beguiling romantic comedy is the neighborly bonds of everyday life in a working-class Paris suburb. Casque d’Or (Golden Marie, 1952), the director’s masterpiece, is one of the great romances of European cinema. A glowing but unsentimental evocation of fin de siècle Paris’s apache underworld, it stars the young and sultry Simone Signoret as a beautiful prostitute involved in a doomed love affair that ends on the guillotine. In Becker’s gripping, life-affirming last film, Le Trou (1959), the story of a prison escape, the five main characters are played by non-professionals, all of whom give remarkable performances. Becker was one of the few older French directors admired by New Wave filmmakers—it was an admiration not misplaced.