(Le vieil homme et l'enfant) (1967)
Directed by Claude Berri
Written by Claude Berri, Gerard Brach, and Michel Rivelin
Starring Michel Simon, Alain Cohen
One of the best things about going off to college for me was the ability to see many more movies. I grew up in a small town, with only one theater (one screen, of course), so my choices were limited to what they showed as well as anything that was broadcast on the NYC stations (once we got cable). Not only did I move to an area with a couple of dozen theaters, but our college had its own film programs. My freshman year, they had a general policy – classics and well-known films on weekends, but art films on Tuesday and Friday. Which is where I saw The Two of Us.
The movie is set in 1944 in France. Claude (Alain Cohen) is a Jewish boy living with his parents in secret in Paris. Afraid he might give them away, they quickly teach him some of the basics of Catholicism and send him to a farm in the French countryside, run by Grandpa (Michel Simon). Grandpa is prickly, charming, and often very sweet. He is also an anti-Semite, believing the Jews are responsible for the war.
The movie, based upon director Claude Berri’s experiences as a boy, stays away from the usual Hollywood dramatics such a situation would normally bring up. Normally, you’d expect most of the film being made up of Claude fearing being exposed and with many incidents where he just manages to keep from being found out. While Claude is aware he had to keep his origin secret,* the movie isn’t built around it, nor is it built around Grandpa discovering the errors of his ways.** The movie is more about the relationship between the two and how it grows into a loving friendship.
Michel Simon had appeared in several landmark French films of the 30s and beyond.*** This film was an attempt at a comeback after an accident involving film makeup paralyzed part of his face, and helped him reclaim his stardom. His Grandpa is richly pictured as having a strong fatherly love for the boy, while still showing a lot of complexity to the character.
Alain Cohen also turns in a terrific performance, one of the best by a child in the history of film. He’s perfectly natural and extremely likeable.
This was Claude Berri’s first full-length film, financed after he won a best short subject Oscar. He continued a successful career with more autobiographical films**** and in 1986 directed his masterpiece: Jean de Florette/Manon of the Spring. But even the first time out, Berri shows a overflowing talent.
*For instance, if anyone discovers he’s circumcised, he’s in big trouble.
***His role in Boudu Saved from Drowning was played by Nick Nolte in a remake fifty years later, Down and Out in Beverly Hills.
****Starring Cohen, using him much like Truffault used Jean-Pierre Leaud for his semiautobiographical work.