Tuesday, December 18, 2007

THE TWO OF US - #388

It doesn't matter how many movies you see, some will still surprise you.

It's not always easy to do in our current climate of over-saturation and hype. Afraid of what might happen if ticket buyers didn't know exactly what they were in for before entering a cineplex, movie studios tell us everything they can about their product, sucking the spontaneity right out of it. That's why once I know I am planning on seeing something, I try to shut everything out. Better yet, if a movie slides across my desk that I'm not familiar with, I don't read up on it. I won't even flip it around and read the summary on the back. Let every frame of it be brand new!

So it goes that I received The Two of Us - Criterion Collection, the new DVD release of Claude Berri's 1967 French film. The original title is Le Vieil homme et l'enfant, more accurately translated as "The Old Man and the Boy." You look at the cover photo, and that title would appear to be pretty accurate. It looks to be a movie about the relationship between a kindly old man and a young kid. And that is what it is, but it's also so much more.

The Two of Us is set in occupied France. As the film opens, an introductory title and voiceover narration set the stage by telling us that the story is one of "poetic nostalgia," based on the real experiences of the main character, the director's stand-in. Claude (Alain Cohen) wants to be a normal nine year old. He's aware of the Second World War, but he'd rather block it out, because it gets in the way of being a kid. Easier said than done, as his family is Jewish, and Claude's refusal to keep his head down and quietly go about his business is a constant risk to their lives, forcing them to move over and over to avoid being exposed to the Germans.

Fed up with Claude's antics, his folks arrange through a friend to have him sent to the countryside, away from suspicious eyes, where he will live with the friend's parents. Claude will have to pretend to be Catholic, however, as the old man he will soon call Grandpa is a raging anti-Semite. Pepe is played by Michel Simon, the wonderful French actor who starred in Jean Renoir's Boudu Saved From Drowning, and he was 72 by the time The Two of Us was made. In his old age, his round face and droopy features made him look like a hound dog. When Berri actually introduces us to Pepe, it's a two-shot of the man and his dog sitting at the dinner table, eating together. The dog wears a bib and Pepe feeds him with a spoon. The old man could almost be feeding his own image in a mirror.

Claude Berri would go on to create the two-part epic Jean de Florette/Manon of the Spring, as well as many other grandly executed films, but this early effort is simplicity itself. The director stays true to the film's frontispiece, maintaining the eyes of a child while telling the story. This means that Pepe is neither vilified nor taught a great lesson, because that is not what happened in real life. It's not that the young Claude is unaware that his new Grandpa is a bit touched in the head, he just chooses to ignore it. As Pepe peddles his ridiculous stereotypes, it's hard to tell at first if Claude is actually buying into the rhetoric or not, but once we realize that the boy is taunting his elder, goading him into spouting off with his silliness and even poking holes in his logic, it all becomes deeply humorous. We are seeing the two extremes, the old ways and the new, misguided experience vs. innocence and wonder. Senior citizens can be just as childish as schoolboys can be wise, and here they meet somewhere in the middle.

It's a rather ingenious thing that Berri has done here. The Two of Us is not only a testament to man's capacity to actually get along, but it also neutralizes the hate by exposing the inherent silliness that forms its foundation. I wouldn't call Pepe harmless, but like so many racists, his notions about other people are so exaggerated, they are cartoonish. Berri need not humiliate him or make him look foolish, he does it all by himself. What else can you make of a strident vegetarian that won't eat animals because it makes him a "cannibal" but can rant just as vehemently about the influence of the Freemasons in the French government? When the Liberation comes, Pepe can see the times changing, and he realizes that it's all passed him by. He's out of step.

So, too, will Claude be leaving him. Pepe's sadness over the direction of the political winds is just as much a sadness about the ending of this friendship. When you set aside the film's subversive technique, The Two of Us is about the loving friendship Claude and Pepe forge. When it comes down to it, that might be the most subversive element of all, that we don't finish the movie thinking about Pepe's hate, we instead think about the love between him and his young pal. The experiences they share, such as Claude's first crush and how Pepe comforts the tearful child when his heart is broken, are stronger. The old man's prejudice has been shrunken down to the comical image of him chasing Claude with a knife between his teeth, pretending to be a Bolshevik who eats children. Seeing such things, racism doesn't seem so unconquerable after all.

Originally written June 12, 2007. For technical specs and special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.

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