April 7, 2018

The Two of Us (1967)
Grade: 74/100

Director: Claude Berri
Stars: Alain Cohen, Michel Simon, Charles Denner

What it's about. A French low budget black-and-white film. It is World War II, France is occupied by the Germans, and Jews in Paris are in peril of being rounded up and sent to concentration camps, where they could die. Jewish parents Charles Denner and Zorica Lozic decide to send their beloved grade-schooler son Claude (Alain Cohen) to the French countryside to live with elderly couple Michel Simon and Luce Fabiole, who are unaware that Claude is Jewish.

Simon is stridently antisemitic, but dotes on the young boy, as well as his aged dog. Simon has a layabout grown son Victor (Roger Carel). Claude develops a crush on silent but engaging country girl Elisabeth Rey.

How others will see it. The Two of Us was a standout movie at the 1967 Berlin Film Festival, where it won various awards including the Silver Berlin Bear for Best Actor (Michel Simon). It made only a minor stir in the U.S., and to this day has only 471 U.S. votes imdb.com. But it is regarded highly on that website, earning a 7.8 from men and an 8.0 from women.

User reviews confirm that the film's charm comes from Claude's total innocence and the old man's garrulous behavior. Some express disappointment that the old man never repents from his politically incorrect views, but not all leopards can change their spots.

How I felt about it. The Two of Us is the U.S. title for the film. In France, it was distributed as The Old Man and the Boy. It was the first feature film (as director) for Claude Berri, previously best known as a supporting actor in the Brigitte Bardot vehicle The Truth (1960). Berri had won an Oscar as a director, but it was for the 1962 short Le Poulet.

The Two of Us was hailed as a triumph, but Berri's career (as producer, director, writer, and actor) continued with less fanfare until 1986, when he again received acclaim for Jean de Florette and its sequel Manon of the Spring. This time, Berri was able to follow up with the international successes Uranus (1990) and Germinal (1993), before his career cooled off again. His death in 2009 makes another comeback unlikely.

The Two of Us was an unexpected return to the international limelight for Michel Simon, whom cinemaphiles might recognize as the title character in Boudu Saved from Drowning. In between, Simon was a French moviestar who made dozens of films. Here, Simon's character is a bigot, but he is nonetheless a kindly man whose views are not so much extreme as misguided patriotism, taken at face value from the propaganda delivered by the Nazi-controlled Vichy government.

Simon's politics are contrasted with those of his easygoing grown son Victor, who espouses few views on the subject until the occupation has ended and Marshall Pétain is nearly universally regarded as a quisling traitor. Victor knows which way the wind is blowing, and acts accordingly.

Young Claude is able to pass as a boy from Paris because that is what he is. He can hide his Jewish identity merely by shielding from sight his circumcised penis. His situation is very similar to that of director Berri during World War II, a French Parisian Jewish child who lived with Christian family in the country until the war ended. Indeed, Claude is a stand-in for the director as a child; they even have the same first name.

Claude shows understandable confusion about who is a Jew, and whether Jews are good or bad. He obeys his parent's instructions not to reveal he is a Jew, but can't help but interrogate his surrogate father about what makes Jews different or unwelcome.

We expect that, at some point, the old man will realize that he is sheltering a Jewish boy, and will face a character turn: do I turn him in, or protect him? But sometimes movies are closer to real life than we would like. The old man never learns that Claude is a Jew, and never accepts that Pétain is a Nazi collaborator undeserving of admiration.