Film Review: The Two of UsSparkling reissue of Claude Berri’s 1967 light drama delivers simple pleasures amidst wartime realities.
Brought back by Cohen Media Group as a gorgeous black-and-white 4K restoration, Claude Berri’s feature debut The Two of Us, the follow-up to his Oscar-winning short film debut “Le poulet,” is a throwback to the fading glory days when, especially in the 1950s and early ’60s, often raw, original, subversive or oddly stylish foreign films thrived on U.S. specialized screens, pulling in art cinema fans and pushing envelopes.
But Berri’s oeuvre, launched late in this historic film wave, was a distant cousin to films like Breathless, 8 1/2, Darling and so many others. Rather, The Two of Us, autobiographical and middle-of-the-road traditional like most of his other films, is a warm, occasionally prickly wartime tale with a serviceable setup that mirrors Berri’s own youth when, like so many other Jewish children under threat, he was sent to live in the French countryside.
The story here begins in 1943, when the endangered Jewish Parisian parents of nine-year-old Claude (Alain Cohen) feel the pressure of the encroaching cccupiers as their mischief-prone only son brings undue attention to the family. When a friendly neighbor offers a safe place for Claude at her parents’ farm near Grenoble, they accept the offer.
After Claude is taught to hide his religion, fake being Catholic and learn “The Lord’s Prayer,” he’s off to France’s rural southeast, where he lives with the doddering, anti-Semitic curmudgeon Pépé (the great Michel Simon) and, thankfully, his clear-headed, patient wife Mèmè (Luce Fabiole) on their farm.
Claude adapts nicely, in spite of occasional bullying from the neighbors’ kids, food rationing, lice infestations and the quirks of an often grumpy Pépé, a veteran of World War I who often blames Jews and Bolsheviks for this war. Yet, the old charmer (sometimes!) has his sweet spots: He loves animals, especially his loyal aging dog, and eschews meat. He’s also paternal towards Claude and a deepening trust and playfulness develop between them even as the boy is surrounded by crucifixes and pictures of the Nazi puppet Vichy French icon Maréchal Pétain.
Plot here is not the thing, nor is suspense or a creeping sense of danger beyond the prospect of what might happen should Claude betray his Jewish roots to his ward. Rather, The Two of Us engages with its evocation of farm country living (the rustic scenery, animals, Claude’s attention to his chores, etc.), the growing rapport between the old man and the boy and, of especial interest to history buffs, the wartime conditions that plague the lives of the occupied country—the propaganda broadcasts, food shortages and rationing, pro-Pétain anthems like “Maréchal, Nous Voilà,” the anti-Semitic, pro-Vichy babble, etc. Additionally, references to the Free French in London and an impending Allied invasion help fill out this atmospheric canvas.
Key performances are strong, especially from the legendary Simon, who starred in a number of French cinema classics (Boudu Saved From Drowning, Port of Shadows); from Cohen, who displays a wide-eyed comfort with the camera and even with the formidable Pépé (Cohen went on to play a Claude character in several of Berri’s subsequent autobiographical films); and Fabiole, as the wise farm wife with admirable tolerance for so difficult a spouse.
The digitally blessed reincarnation of this lovely effort from a man who became a giant of French cinema as a writer/director/producer/distributor and founder of Renn Productions is the result of sound and image restorations of the original negatives supervised by Pathé, with the support of the CNC.
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