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June 14, 2007

The Two of Us

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Le Vieil homme et l'Enfant
Claude Berri - 1967
Criterion Collection Region 1 DVD

I never had the opportunity to see The Two of Us during its initial theatrical release. Had I seen the film then, I would have probably focused more on Claude Berri's on-screen alter ego, portrayed by Alain Cohen. I would have also more likely felt more outrage at the anti-Semitism of the old man played by Michel Simon. In the forty years that have passed, there has been a parade of lovable and not so lovable film curmudgeons, making Simon's character less outrageous in retrospect. What has also happened, at least for me, is that the story is less important than the pleasure of watching Michel Simon on screen.

Simon always seemed larger than life, and in The Two of Us, his added girth would give him extra weight both physically, and with his presence on screen. What makes The Two of Us fun to watch now is to see the star of Boudu Saved from Drowning and L'Atalante goofing off in his early Seventies. Whether spoon feeding his dog, or kicking up his heels on a swing, Simon's old man suggests a less agile Boudu combined with a less wise Pere Jules. Simply watching Simon's face which suggests a well-worn old shoe is a reminder of the many engaging turns in so many earlier films.

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The DVD includes Berri's short film, Le Poulet, which won the Academy Award in 1966. The film is about a young boy who adopts a chicken as a pet, saving it from becoming Sunday dinner. The inclusion of the short is helpful in that his frequent theme, about the importance of family, is already in place. The Two of Us is the story of a young boy with two families, his biological family and his adopted family.

Inspired by Berri's own experiences in World War II, his debut film is about a young Jewish boy who stays with an older couple in the country. The couple are not told of Claude's true identity, assuming that he is a French Catholic boy. There is tension due to the old man's periodic outbursts of anti-Semitism. Claude is asked by the old man, the day he moves in, to call him Grandpa. Claude and the old man develope a relationship that is warmer than that of Claude with his real father. At times taking his disguised role to the hilt, Claude goads the old man to explain his anti-Semitism. Claude finds ways to humorously throw the old man's arguments back at him.

While Berri felt that his film was making a statement about racism, the old man's attitudes seem more like minor character flaws than major failings. Watching Simon chase Alain Cohen with a garden hose or introducing the young boy to the pleasures of alcohol makes some of the dramatic concerns besides the point. The one time the dramatic and comic merges best is a scene with young Claude making sure he bathes privately. In one of the DVD supplements, a grown up Alain Cohen notes that the relationship he had with Michel Simon extended off screen, with the veteran actor protective of his young co-star. The two remained in contact until Simon's death in 1975.

A few years younger than the filmmakers that emerged with the initial Nouvelle Vague, Claude Berri's films seemed stylistically old fashion in comparison. Berri's lack of trendiness served him best with Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring, another tale of families in a pastoral setting. Still, the main reason to see, or re-see The Two of Us is to watch Michel Simon filling up the screen with his last major role.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at June 14, 2007 12:27 AM


any michel simon movie is worth seeing.... he's by far my favorite actor, a proto-mish-mash of walter matthau, bill murray, and adam sandler. can't wait to check this out.... Thanks for pointing it out for us.

Posted by: Derek Jenkins at June 14, 2007 12:32 PM