Try as I might, I can find no significant flaw in Claude Berri's Le Vieil homme et l'enfant (released on these shores as The Two of Us). Indeed, why should I? Though perhaps criticism is the natural stance of my inner curmudgeon, I'll choose instead to side with my inner child, delighted and awakened to a larger world.
This, of course, is the story of Berri's lovely film, and it's a story that hasn't gone out of style. The writer-director's autobiographical spin on his childhood acknowledges the complimentary personalities of the young and old, ages that can offer attentive love and unspoken wisdom to each other. In German-occupied France, eight-year-old Claude Langmann (Berri's real name) acts out by stealing, smoking, and generally raising hell.
He has his loving parents' attention, for better and worse. "Are you aware of the situation?!" his father asks. "When will you understand the situation?!" Before long, the boy's parents give him the assumed name Claude Longuet and painfully send him to live with a gentile friend's family in the country, near Grenoble. There, Claude shares a home with a family presided over by his new "Grandpa" and "Grandma," both blissfully unaware that they are harboring a Jew.
The lively old man proves to be anti-Semitic, which only piques the boy's curiosity about his own identity and the pliable boundaries of his new friend. Their interactions grow from one-sided diatribes to tentative conversations that challenge the old man's set ways: Claude deflates "Grandpa"'s insistent prejudices with a child's simply incisive line of questioning ("How do you recognize them?") or a reminder of the local priest's Christian admonishment that, after all, God chose for Christ to be a Jew.
Excepting school times, the two become inseparable, but Claude must vigilantly conceal the one piece of damning evidence he cannot, so to speak, circumvent. Other challenges emerge (a vegetarian conspiracy and a tricky puppy-love romance), but the pall of war affects Claude in ways he only vaguely understands. "Grandpa" spouts diatribes in a call and repsonse with Vichy radio broadcasts, teachers conduct regular "cootie" checks, and rationing tightens belts. In a typical moment of plain honesty, Claude tells it to a cow: "I'm sick of this war."
Child actor Alain Cohen was Berri's Jean-Pierre Léaud, playing the director's surrogate in three films, and his attentive, disarming work in Le Vieil homme et l'enfant earned him that respect. Larger-than-life Michel Simon, born the same year as cinema itself, canters with the happy, awkward grace of a well-worn man ever-ready for another go-round. Simon's fighting shape was evident to the Berlin Film Festival's jury, which awarded him the Best Actor prize.
Berri confesses that he regarded the story from behind the rose-tinted glasses of youth, but he needn't make excuses. If the old man becomes slightly more open when he comforts the Jewish boy after his head is cruelly shaved, his accidental tolerance is ironic (later, a collaborationist's shaved head represents her shame). Creeping fear congregates around the infectious joie de vivre, and Berri properly withholds the money "lesson" from the dog-loving old family man—to him, Claude is one of his own.
The "happy" ending—which must, inevitably, separate fast friends to reunite family—is frustrating and ambiguous. The passing men leave each other unsettling preoccupations, but both are the better for them. If Berri errs on the side of humanity's capacity for goodness, if the audience remembers play on a swing in the country air more vividly than mortal hurt, who's to judge that half-full glass? Perhaps Berri spoke for himself through the old man's self-summation: "I don't have a church bell for a heart, but I respect life."
[Note: As distributed by Rialto Pictures, the freshly subtitled The Two of Us plays with Berri's Oscar-winning fifteen-minute short "Le Poulet," a jazzy charmer about a boy who devises a crafty plan to save his father's newly acquired rooster from the stew pot. Don't be late.]