The Two of Us (Le vieil homme et l'enfant)

Director: Claude Berri
Screenplay: Claude Berri, Gérard Brach, Michel Rivelin
Stars: Michel Simon (Grandpa), Alain Cohen (Claude), Charles Denner (Claude's Father), Luce Fabiole (Grandma), Roger Carel (Victor), Paul Préboist (Maxime), Jacqueline Rouillard (Teacher), Aline Bertrand (Raymonde), Sylvine Delannoy (Suzanne)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1967
Country: France
The Two of Us: Criterion Collection DVD
The Two of UsThe beauty of Claude Berri's debut film, The Two of Us (Le vieil homme et l'enfant), is that it doesn't serve up an obvious lesson at the end. It is a sweet, unadorned story about love and bigotry, and were it to be remade in Hollywood (God forbid), it would surely end with one character having a major revelation and then delivering a speech for the audience in which the importance and meaning of said revelation is clearly, unequivocally explained. Berri trusts his audience more than that. He trusts that we will understand his film's gentle message about the transcending power of love without speeches or posing.

And that is, above all else, what The Two of Us is: gentle. It does not, however, take place in a gentle time and place. Rather, the story unfolds during the worst years of World War II, when France is occupied by the Nazis and many Jewish parents feared for their lives and the lives of their children. Because of this, nine-year-old Claude (Alain Cohen), a mischievous little boy who doesn't understand the necessity of keeping a low profile, is sent by his parents to live with an elderly, retired Catholic couple in the countryside. Claude is instructed to act Catholic--he learns to recite the Lord's Prayer, changes his name to the less-Semitic-sounding Longuet, and makes sure that no one seems him bathing lest they notice that he is circumcised.

Claude immediately strikes up a relationship with his new “Grandpa,” who is beautifully played by the veteran French character actor Michel Simon in one of his last performances. He's a shaggy-dog of a man, with a portly gut and unkempt hair, who appreciates Claude's devotion and willingness to listen to him. They play and work together, making games out of chopping wood, and Grandpa allows Claude to listen with him to the wartime propaganda broadcasts on the radio. When Claude has trouble at school, it is into Grandpa's arms he runs crying.

The irony is that Grandpa is resolutely anti-Semitic, and he has no idea that the child with whom he is forging such a strong bond is a Jew. The film is full of such contradictions, and the film's underlying pleasure is the way we can see through those contradictions to the characters' hearts. For example, while Grandpa says terrible, ignorant things about Jews (and about Bolsheviks … and about Freemasons … and about the English), he is also such a caring soul that he refuses to eat meat and feeds his faithful dog at the dinner table as if he were a person, right down to the bib (“A man without a bib loses his dignity,” he declares at one point).

Berri is careful in outlining Grandpa's bigotry, and Simon's nuanced performance shows us that it is a function of ignorance, rather than hatred. In a 1975 interview, Berri said that he was trying to illustrate Sartre's description of anti-Semitism as someone who doesn't like tomatoes, but has never tried one. That does not make the racism any less odious, but it does make it more understandable, especially when Grandpa's conception of Jews is not far removed from Borat's. He genuinely believes he can spot a Jew by the way he or she smells, and the fact that he delivers this declaration in the close presence of a Jewish boy is but one small gem of comedy in a film that constantly walks a tricky balancing act between the funny and the sad, the poignant and the tragic.

The Two of Us takes numerous dramatic risks without every appearing to do so. The relationship between Grandpa and Claude is the film's heart, and yet we're asked to not only sympathize with, but appreciate a man whose intolerance, while not directly harming anyone, is precisely what enabled the Nazis to kill millions of Jews. Grandpa is a grizzled old fool, but it's impossible not to love him because Claude loves him so much. Again, we have risk: Claude could have so easily been one of those insufferable movie moppets, a super-cute child whose innocence is meant to be a beacon of light in a dark world. Instead, Claude is a troubled kid (in the film's very first scene he is caught shoplifting) who finds comfort and peace in unlikely arms, which allows him to ever-so-gently undermine many of Grandpa's most virulent beliefs. When Grandpa explains to him how Jews have hooked noses and curly hair, Claude points out that Grandpa's own nose is rather large and his hair quite wavy, which culminates in Claude accusing him of being a disguised Jew. The performance by Alain Cohen, a first-time actor, is precious without being syrupy, moving without being manipulative.

And that, more than anything, describes The Two of Us as a whole. As a first film, it is superbly accomplished, displaying a confidence in both its own dramatic resonance and the audience's ability to distinguish fine gradations of human behavior without needing anything spelled out. Claude Berri, who found his greatest international success in the 1980s with his 1986 films Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring, based The Two of Us on his own wartime experiences as a child (his real last name, Langmann, is the name that his on-screen surrogate must deny). As a result The Two of Us hums with a sense of both dramatic and comedic authenticity that most films, even those with the greatest of intentions, often lack.

The Two of Us Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio1.66:1
AudioFrench Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Subtitles English
  • Le poulet (1962), director Claude Berri's Oscar-winning short film
  • New video interviews with Berri and actor Alain Cohen
  • Interviews from 1967 with Berri and Michel Simon
  • Excerpt from “The Jewish Children of Occupied France,” a 1975 French talk-show segment
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring a new essay by critic David Sterritt, an appreciation of the film by François Truffaut, and excerpts from Berri's memoir
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJune 12, 2007

    Under the approval of director Claude Berri, Criterion's new high-definition transfer of The Two of Us was made from a 35mm fine-grain master positive and digitally restored with the MTI Digital Restoration System. As would be expected from Criterion, the transfer is outstanding, with excellent detail, contrast, and not a nick or scratch to be found. The original monaural soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm optical soundtrack print and also digitally restored, resulting in a clear, pleasant, hiss-free track that lets Georges Delerue's disarmingly simple piano score really shine.
    In addition to the inclusion of Claude Berri's 1962 short film Le poulet, which won the Academy Award for Best Short Film in 1966, there are a number of interviews on the disc, both new and old. Berri appears in three interviews: one from the French TV series Cinéma from 1967 (7 min.); a 1975 French talk-show segment titled “The Jewish Children of Occupied France” (6 min.), in which Berri appears with Mrs. Letournel, the woman who helped his family escape the Nazis; and a new video interview in which he recounts his career as a filmmaker (9 min.). There is a 1967 interview with Michel Simon from French television (2 min.), and Alain Cohen appears in 12-minute video interview from 2005, in which he discusses how he came to be cast in the role (apparently, Simon had final say over his casting, which may be why they have such great on-screen chemistry) and his memories of making the film. There is also an original theatrical trailer (in nonanamorphic widescreen), and the insert booklet features a new essay by critic David Sterritt, an appreciation of the film written by François Truffaut, and excerpts from Berri's memoir

    Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (4)

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