Revisiting the French film that got me hooked

I wasn’t always a sucker for French movies. And I don’t unconditionally love them all—there are some amazingly bad ones out there, after all. But whether roaming the video store or checking the movie listings, I find myself inordinately ready to give French films a chance. I can trace it all back to wandering into an art theater in St. Louis one evening and seeing the quietly charming The Two of Us.

Set in German-occupied France, it tells the story of a young Jewish boy in Paris sent by his parents to live in the country with an elderly Catholic couple until the liberation. The old man is “staunchly anti-Semitic,” as one reviewer put it, so the boy must hide his identity.

The intense bond that forms between the two of them is the story. And the brilliant performances of the two leads—Michel Simon as Grampa and nine-year-old, first-time actor Alain Cohen as Claude—make the story come alive.

As does acclaimed director Claude Berri’s deft touch in his feature film debut. He avoids descending into cliché cuteness, showing the characters warts and all. Before being whisked off to the country, young Claude gets caught smoking, fighting and shoplifting, thus calling attention to his family and forcing them to move. And when the old man tries to pass along his anti-Semitic views to Claude, he pretends to go along with his views, but then teases him. At one point, Grampa is trying to teach Claude how to spot a Jew; he tells him they always have big noses and wear their hats to the dinner table. The boy points out Simon’s beret and his impressively bulbous nose, then runs through the house, yelling in mock alarm, “Grampa’s a Jew!”

Equally charming is Berri’s affectionate but unsentimental view of country life in France in the 1940s. The scenes with the schoolchildren at the one-room country school especially capture the rough edges of rural life, and the outdoor Sunday dinner with Grampa’s grown son and his wife, its delights.

For all these reasons, The Two of Us is a film to see. When it was rereleased in 2005, actor Alain Cohen said in an interview in the New York Times that the theme of the film was “the ambivalent difference between real evil and evil lightly performed. It’s impossible to hate the character played by Michel Simon. Yet he does say hateful things. You might think that’s Claude Berri’s way of telling us that anti-Semitism isn’t really all that bad. But I think it suggests just the opposite—that even under the appearance of good, evil can exist, that this nice grandfather, who adores his little rabbits, could be on the dark side of history.”

Perhaps so. But I think the theme could as easily be the folly of prejudice. We are taught certain prejudicial views—by our families and friends, by society, the media, church, government… But when we actually have a chance to explore them, we find they are false.

If you like French films, see The Two of Us. And if you think you don’t like them, see it anyway. It’s a misconception you’ll be happy to let go of.

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5 Responses to “Revisiting the French film that got me hooked”

  1. Ronnie Ann Says:

    A dear friend of mine suggested I rent this and it’s truly a treasure. Claude and Grandpa’s relationship is so vividly drawn it all but leaps out at you and pulls you into the film. I join you in heartily recommending it to anyone. So tasty.

  2. Cara Says:

    Thanks for posting this Terry…I saw it a month ago and loved it…can’t understand why I’d never seen it before. And thanks for the nice post about Paradis!

    Nancy Huston, a Canadian author who lives in Paris, was just shortlisted for the Booker Prize and in an article she mentions how Romain Gary was her inspiration too…

  3. carolyn Says:

    Ah, Terry, French movies! I definitely will try to see the “Two of Us.”

    But just the topic took me on a mental odyssey. My first French movie was A Man and a Woman and the last was Amelie.

    Separated by about 40 years, both movies temporarily changed my life.

  4. Terry B Says:

    Ronnie—Michel Simon [Grampa] had apparently had heaalth problems that relegated him to minor roles late in life. When Berri took a chance on him, he turned in one of the defining performances of his life. Now, that’s gratitude.

    Cara—I’m always happy to promote your wonderful mysteries. Can’t wait to dig into Murder in the Rue de Paradis.

    Carolyn—Two more great films! One of these days, I need to do a round-up post of some of my favorite French films. And maybe name a couple of the stinkers too.

  5. yasuo ishida st louis Says:

    i am so glad to know others have enjoyed this movie! one memorable scene is where the boy comes home sobbing because his head got shaven because of head lice, an effective treatment before ddt, i guess.

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