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The Two of Us

The Two of Us(1968)

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After winning an Academy Award for his short film Le Poulet (1962) and contributing segments to a couple of anthology films, French director Claude Berri (Jean de Florette, Manon of the Spring) helmed his first feature film in 1967: Le Vieil Homme et L'enfant (The Old Man and the Boy). Inspired by his own experiences growing up during World War II, the film mixes simple, intimate moments from a child's life with reflections on French society and a penetrating look at bigotry. Released in the United States as The Two of Us the film is now available on DVD under that title from Criterion.

Paris, 1944: Increasingly worried about their son's safety, Mr. and Mrs. Langmann (Charles Denner and Zorica Lozic) send 8-year old Claude (Alain Cohen) to live in the country with the elderly parents of a gentile friend for the duration of the war, giving the boy strict instructions to conceal his Jewish identity. Claude has difficulty making friends at his new school, and instead bonds with his new caregivers, "Grampa" (Michel Simon) and "Grandma" (Luce Fabiole). A veteran of World War I who is loyal to Marshal Pétain, Grampa makes no secret of his dislike for the resistance, the British, communists, freemasons-and especially Jews. He lectures Claude on all the terrible characteristics he believes Jews to possess, simultaneously fascinating, puzzling and frightening his young charge. As the war draws to a close, Grampa realizes that he is out of step with the times, and finds consolation only in the loving relationship he has formed with Claude.

Berri avoids conventional cinematic storytelling and traditional dramatic structure, opting to allow Claude's story to unfold as a series of vignettes. The effect is impressionistic and very much like remembering one's own early childhood: one recalls episodes that made a strong impression, not an unbroken narrative. The movie thus feels much more lifelike and real; as François Truffaut wrote in an essay reproduced in the liner notes, "we are led from one surprise to another. We never anticipate the next scene." Furthermore, Berri is able to weave the thematic points he wants to make about bigotry naturally into this material so that they never feel like an "author's moral lesson" grafted onto the story. Learning that the film deals with a Jewish child during World War II makes one expect a mix of suspense (will he be caught?), tragedy and heavy moralizing, but Berri surprises us by keeping the focus on everyday matters. Everything comes from simply observing the characters; the audience never feels lectured to. The entire film is a process of gradual discovery.

Although the story is told from Claude's perspective, the most memorable character is Michel Simon's Grampa. The man is a bigot, but he's not a cruel, hate-filled monster. To the contrary, Berri and Simon show Grampa as often kind and sentimental, especially toward animals. He spoon-feeds his elderly dog at the dinner table, and is so attached to the rabbits he is raising that he has become a vegetarian rather than eat them. (He calls his wife a "cannibal" for eating them.) Politically, he has no love for the Nazis (the "Hun invaders", as he calls them); his support of the occupation government is based on his loyalty as a veteran to Pétain and a deep distrust of the resistance, which he believes is made up entirely of those groups he regards as enemies of France (communists, freemasons, Jews-all backed by the hated British). The rest of his family is tired of arguing politics with him, leaving Grampa-although he would be too proud to admit it-a lonely figure. This is part of the reason he becomes so attentive to Claude: the boy hangs on his every word while his wife and children tune him out. A common sense of isolation helps bring them together.

If Grampa is a fundamentally kind man who can easily relate to children and animals, why is he a bigot? On one level, Berri suggests that he is just reflecting common attitudes in society. Grampa never regards his beliefs about Jews to be an opinion; to him, it's simply common knowledge. He even states that Jews have never done anything to him personally, so he hasn't acquired his beliefs through experience, but just absorbed them from society in general. Grampa's bigotry is not an aberration, but a widely-held attitude. Furthermore, Grampa's beliefs are repeatedly shown to be false-although he doesn't realize it. The proof is that young Claude is Jewish, and doesn't possess any of the awful traits Grampa ascribes to Jews. At times Claude asks questions or makes observations that point out the absurdity of Grampa's beliefs (after Grampa declares that all Jews have big noses, Claude innocently points out that the old man himself has a prodigious proboscis), but usually the audience gets the point by just watching the self-declared expert on Jews lecturing the boy he doesn't realize is Jewish. (Grampa even boasts that he can always spot a Jew while sitting across from Claude.) Thus Berri very subtly and effectively demonstrates that the core of bigotry is ignorance. Much credit for the success of Grampa as a character must, of course, go to Michel Simon. The legendary actor (Renoir's Boudou Saved from Drowning, Jean Vigo's L'Atalante, etc.) brings great charm to the role, but never makes the character overly cute. Most Hollywood actors would likely have insisted on changes to make the character more loveable; Simon, by contrast, doesn't neglect Grampa's stubbornness and irritability-the qualities that have driven his family away and made him a lonely man in need of companionship. It's an excellent performance that reinvigorated the aging actor's career, won him a Best Actor award at the Berlin Film Festival and helped bring Berri's small film the attention it deserved.

Young Alain Cohen, who had never acted before Claude Berri cast him in The Two of Us plays the role of Claude so naturally that some scenes almost feel like they are from a documentary on a real boy's life. In the early scenes in Paris, Claude is something of a troublemaker, but only because he doesn't understand the danger he would face if he attracted the attention of the Nazis. In a toy store he tries to shoplift a toy German tank, utterly unaware of the evil it represents, knowing only that it's a nifty toy; he's a true innocent. Relocated to the country and warned to keep his identity a secret, Claude's caution makes him quiet, almost withdrawn, and thus an easy target for kids at school who tease him for being an outsider. When he turns to Grampa for attention and friendship and starts to hear the old man's beliefs about Jews, Claude's reaction is complex. He is curious to learn about his heritage, but Grampa's remarks don't connect with what Claude knows. Nevertheless, Claude is at an age when adults are trusted and thought to know everything, so he attempts to reconcile this new "information" with what he already knows. This sometimes confuses him, prompting more questions, and at least once frightens him, leading Claude to one night declare that he is afraid of being a Jew. A less talented child may have made Claude come across as passive or even gullible, but Cohen captures his basic good-natured qualities and his curiosity, and his rapport with Simon is clearly genuine.

Criterion's DVD of The Two of Us is another superlative disc from the label, with a beautiful 1.66:1, 16 x 9 enhanced transfer that shows off Jean Penzer's black & white cinematography to good advantage. The French mono soundtrack is fine, with Georges Delerue's sparse but effective score sounding quite good. For extras, Criterion includes Berri's Oscar®-winning Le Poulet, a charming short about a boy trying to spare a rooster from ending up as his family's Sunday dinner. New video interviews with Berri and Cohen are also included, as are short television interviews from 1967 featuring Berri and Michel Simon. An excerpt from a 1975 television program reunites Berri with the woman who helped save his family during the war, and covers some of the differences between the real events and those depicted in The Two of Us. Rounding out the extras are the original French trailer and a booklet containing essays by David Sterritt and François Truffaut, plus excerpts from Berri's autobiography.

For more information about The Two of Us, visit The Criterion Collection. To order The Two of Us, go to TCM Shopping.

by Gary Teetzel