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A bittersweet tale of unlikely human connection even under the most grim circumstances, director Claude Berri's semi-autobiographical The Two of Us (1967) stars Alain Cohen as Claude, an eight-year-old Parisian boy whose mischievous streak is threatening the safety of his Jewish parents in World War II Paris.
Claude has a tendency to attract attention because of his bad behavior, from smoking in outhouses to shoplifting. Finally, his loving, indulgent parents have had enough and for his safety and their own, ship Claude off to the French countryside to stay with their neighbor's elderly Catholic parents. His residency comes with a crucial condition: Claude cannot reveal he is Jewish or risk the wrath of confirmed anti-Semite Pepe (Michel Simon). With the new last name of Longuet and the Lord's Prayer committed to memory, Claude parts from his beloved parents, but finds a new love and protection while living with a provincial French couple.
Claude thrives under the watchful guidance of Mm (Luce Fabiole), but especially under the influence of Pepe, his gruff, quirky substitute grandfather, a kind of French Archie Bunker who forces us to look beyond his prejudices. Disgusted by the war, which he blames on the Jews, Communists, Freemasons and various other scapegoats, Pepe also harbors a questionable admiration for the French puppet leader Marshal Ptain.
Yet Berri's film is a remarkable humanizing portrait of even despicable behavior. Anti-Semite Pepe begins to reveal that beneath that outward mask of prejudice is a kind-hearted man with a vast affection for the small boy who becomes his soul mate and constant companion. By the end of the film, the love he has found with Claude has transformed him: rather than petty and hateful, he has become ennobled and softened. Despite his bigotry, at heart Pepe is just an uneducated softy. He'd rather eat vegetables than kill the rabbits the couple raise on their farm, and he has a love for his elderly dog Kinou, who is allowed to eat at the table, that borders on the divine. As a child, Berri, who was Jewish, was also sheltered by a gentile couple in the French countryside and the realism, depth and subtlety of the people in The Two of Us reflects his real-world experience of the often complicated nature of human behavior.
The delicate interplay between Claude and Pepe is in many ways due to the exquisite performance by legendary French thespian and son of a Swiss sausage maker Michel Simon who worked with some of the most lauded directors in cinema including Carl Theodor Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928), Jean Renoir (Boudu Saved from Drowning, 1932) and Jean Vigo (L'Atalante, 1934). The film was a comeback for Simon who was temporarily sidelined when contaminated film makeup caused temporary paralysis of his face and body. The Two of Us won Simon the Silver Bear for Best Actor award at the Berlin International Film Festival.
As with other directors like Martin Scorsese with Robert De Niro or Francois Truffaut and Jean-Pierre Laud, child actor Alain Cohen became Berri's muse, appearing in two more autobiography-inflected films, Le Cinema de Papa (1971) and Le Premire Fois (1976). Cohen had been touched in his own way by the Holocaust: his mother had escaped it as a child, but her parents both perished at Auschwitz. The New York Times's critic Renata Adler noted Cohen for his "wonderful balance of gravity and mischief."
Director Claude Berri's first feature, The Two of Us was originally called The Old Man and the Child. Berri (Jean de Florette, 1986 Manon of the Spring, 1986) secured crucial funding for his film when his previous work, the comedy short Le Poulet (1965) received an Academy Award win for Best Short Subject.
Director: Claude Berri
Producer: Paul Cadac, Andr Hunebelle
Screenplay: Claude Berri, Grard Brach, Michel Rivelin
Cinematography: Jean Penzer
Production Design: Georges Levy, Maurice Petri
Music: Georges Delerue
Cast: Michel Simon (Pepe), Alain Cohen (Claude), Charles Denner (Claude's father), Luce Fabiole (Mm), Roger Carel (Victor), Paul Prboist (Maxime), Jacqueline Rouillard (Teacher), Sylvine Delannoy (Suzanne), Zorica Lozic (Claude's mother), Marco Perrin (the priest), Elisabeth Rey (Dinou), Didier Perret (Dinou's brother).
by Felicia Feaster