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.