It's cool...some of Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger's best friends are Bolsheviks.
Dear Marshal, here we are!
When the gifted young director Quentin Tarantino cast John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, it was more than stunt casting. Tarantino had grown up watching Travolta and knew what he was capable of. Rather than cast a flashy up-and-comer, Tarantino cast someone he could rely on to give the performance he needed. The result is what we typically call a comeback, a return to glory for an actor who has slipped a few rungs in the Hollywood hierarchy. Pulp Fiction is now regarded as a modern classic and Travolta has ridden its wave into high-profile roles.
Substitute Tarantino with Claude Berri and Travolta with Michel Simon and you have the classic French equivalent of this story. With an Oscar under his belt but no real reputation, Berri had just enough clout to sign Michel Simon. Simon's performance proved that great actors are never in retirement, but merely waiting for the right role. The difference between Pulp Fiction and The Two of Us is that we have the benefit of historical perspective: Claude Berri has proved himself and Michel Simon's career is simply astounding by any measure.
Facts of the Case
Eight-year-old Claude (Alain Cohen, …And They Lived Happily Ever After) gives his parents fits. Though he is a Jew living in occupied Paris, Claude shoplifts, smokes, and roughhouses in the roadways after school. His high-profile indiscretions force Claude's family to move frequently. In desperation, they send him to the country to live with "Grandpa" Pepe.
Pepe (Michel Simon, L'Atalante) is not Claude's grandfather—in fact, he doesn't know Claude at all. He's simply humoring a request from his liberal daughter to give a troubled kid some fresh air for awhile. But Pepe is a blind follower of Marshal Pètain and his propaganda. Pepe hates Bolsheviks, Freemasons, and Jews without knowing precisely why. Yet his heart is gentle and his ire is short-lived. As the war rages around their periphery, Claude and Pepe forge a deep bond.
Simon gave Jean Vigo's 1934 masterpiece L'Atalante a boost with his salty, singular performance of Pere Jules, and was a favorite of Jean Renoir in the late '30s. Though Simon had worked almost continually since then and performed admirably in a variety of roles, he hadn't turned heads with a definitive Pere Jules-like performance. Then John Frankenheimer brought him back onto the radar with The Train in 1964.
But Berri's ostensibly simple film The Two of Us relied on Simon to carry the load. Essentially a duet with an nine-year-old unknown—and Berri's first feature film—The Two of Us required Simon to forge a memorable character for the picture to work.
The rest is history. Simon reached out to the nine-year-old Alain Cohen and guided Berri through some choppy waters. After nearly 50 years of acting in various roles and formats, Simon showed audiences something new. His portrayal of an irascible but sensitive bigot, out of touch with the political winds in occupied France, touched a collective nerve among French survivors. His comeback was triumphant and total.
Naturally, Berri deserves much of the credit. Unlike the typical war film that dramatized every bomb and death, The Two of Us is matter-of-fact about the war. The most noticeable side effect of the bombings for Pepe is that the lights go out when he's sitting down to supper. The French countryside is for the most part still the French countryside, with its set ways, impromptu parties, and hard discipline. Bombs don't often fall amid grass and scrub, so Pepe and Claude spend their days loading wood, gardening, and roughhousing in the yard. You almost forget about the war, but Berri provides constant intrusions into their idyll. Threats of mass execution and political unrest lurk like shadows in every corner.
This downplayed, but sensitive, realism led Truffaut to embrace the film in his personal list of favorites. His reflections on the film (linked in the sidebar) are notable for two reasons: Truffaut lived what Berri represents onscreen, and Truffaut is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time—and thus knows how to discuss film at a high level.
Given the score, I'll not try to outmaneuver Truffaut's observations about French filmmaking and politics. Yet Berri's film is relevant even to those who did not spend WWII in the French countryside. The Two of Us forces us to confront prejudice by asking us to admire someone who hates nearly everybody. It reveals the absurd bases for prejudice with honey instead of vinegar. By living in this cinematic world, we can observe our own absurd prejudices with a fresh eye.
This approach would not work if we didn't identify with both Claude and Pepe. As noted previously, Pepe is infused with life and charm by Michel Simon. Though 33 years removed from Pere Jules, Pepe displays the same spark and awkward grace that charges the screen. For his part, Alain Cohen created a memorable and believable rotten kid who has no real reason to be rotten. Perhaps the real-world situation mirrored the film situation enough to imbue realism (Cohen was taken out of school and basically lived alongside Simon and Berri for the summer) or maybe Berri is a gifted director, or maybe Cohen is a natural actor. Maybe Simon's mentorship was the key. In any case, the performance worked.
Criterion has once again performed due diligence in bringing The Two of Us to DVD. The liner notes are as heavy as the DVD and case combined and packed to the brim with detailed observations on the film. The combination of archival and recent interviews create a pleasant cohesion of opinion on the film. Though the emphasis may be slightly different, both sets of interviews reveal great regard for the film and for Michel Simon. The excerpt from "The Jewish Children of Occupied France" is interesting because it allows us to project Berri's autobiographical spin onto the film. I'm disappointed by one small annoyance: Berri interrupts his real-life protector when she's about to say something meaningful, and I wonder what she was going to say. Was he protecting a secret? Did he not notice? C'est la vie.
Finally, Criterion included Berri's Oscar-winning short The Chicken. This pleasant comedy shows the lengths a child will go to to protect his pet. Endearing and funny, it says something about the perspective of children. That something is not fully realized, which led some to criticize the Oscar win. But that's beside the point. The Chicken is included here as a precursor to many of the themes Berri would explore in The Two of Us, which gives us a richer understanding of his style.
As usual, Criterion's technical handling of the DVD transfer is blameless. The sound field isn't enveloping, but it is remarkably clear even when Simon mumbles. The black-and-white cinematography evokes a carefree summer attitude at times and sinister undercurrents at others with crisp clarity.
Charming and sweet, but with a nasty bite of sobering reality, The Two of Us asks you to examine the bases of your preconceptions of other people. It has a rich enough subtext to keep the film meaningful over repeat viewings. The best part is a triumphant performance by one of the world's greatest actors, which makes The Two of Us a must-see for classic film buffs.
Not guilty by reason of sanity.
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Scales of Justice
• "Le poulet" (1962)
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