Le Vieil Homme et L’Enfant / The Old Man and the Boy
Review by Adam Balz
Posted on 28 November 2007
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
“I smell the perfume of happiness.”
When Claude Berri was nine years old, the son of Jewish parents living in Lyon, he was sent away to live with the elderly mother and father of a landlady. Until then he had been a spoiled, overly protected child who often snuck cigarettes behind his parents’ back. He was also, along with his parents, in hiding from the Nazis, and his new family lived safely in the country and listened to the radio editorials of Philippe Henriot. Berri had to change his name for six months to avoid detection, and he enjoyed pestering the older couple about Jewish people. The year was 1944. Twenty-three years later, at the age of thirty-two, he made his first feature film, The Two of Us, a story near identical to his about the hollow cruelty of prejudice and unseen richness of the human soul.
Claude is a young Jewish boy living with his father and mother in Paris. He is also a troublemaker. Caught trying to steal small toys, he is berated by his father for endangering their safety, even as he sits on his mother’s lap and is fed. “How long are you going to spoon-feed him?” his father asks, exasperated. They move to an attic, and he is caught smoking in an outhouse with another boy; his father scolds him again, and their landlady evicts them. They move once more, to another small apartment, and he fights a classmate in an after-school game. And once more his father admonishes him while he is fork-fed in his mother’s embrace. They are opposing forces in the same shifting domicile, a mother who shields her son with compassion and a father who is overpoweringly protective. Still, despite the constant struggle between reprimands and mollycoddling, it is evident that both love their son unconditionally; they are looking out for his safety in a world he doesn’t understand, where he’s persecuted for who he is. So when air raids become too threatening, Claude’s parents decide to send him away. A friend has offered to let him stay with her parents, an older couple named Dupont living in the foothills of the French country. “If my father says something shocking,” she tells him the night before, “don’t pay any attention. He listens to the radio too much. But he’s a good man. He’s not mean.”
Within hours of arriving, Claude is introduced to the old man’s intolerance. Seated at the dinner table, where he feeds his dog from a spoon, “Grampa” exalts garden vegetables while his wife serves boiled rabbit, then turns on the radio to hear Philippe Henriot’s daily broadcast. He vocally attacks Jews, reducing them later to a stereotype of greedy, reeking, hook-nosed caricatures; Claude listens at first, silent, then begins to torment the old man with his own bigotry. He goes to school, where he is bullied for being from Paris, and then returns home to clean beans and potatoes for dinner with him. “Grampa, tell me more about the Jews,” he says, and the old man obliges. He doesn’t know, of course, that Claude is Jewish; his identity is hidden behind the guise of Catholicism. Earlier at the train station, his father made him recite a Christian bedtime prayer, which he stumbles through later that night to the cross above his bed. His last name is changed – Langmann becomes Longuet, “L-O-N-G-U-E-T” – and he forgoes all the sacred practices he’s come to know, the same practices Grampa mocks over bowls of their small harvest, including the use of “hats” and candles during Sabbath. Later that night, unable to sleep, Claude walks to the Dupont’s bedroom and stands at the foot of their bed:
GRANDMA: You’re not asleep?
CLAUDE: I’m scared.
GRANDMA: Of what?
CLAUDE: Of being one.
GRANDMA: One what?
CLAUDE: [running to Grampa’s side] A Jew.
The Dupont’s rural home is the blissful antithesis of Paris. The food, however limited in variety, is abundant; the house is well-furnished, and the old man has a cabinet of alcohol and supply of both coffee and tobacco, all luxuries in a country at war; later, with the Dupont’s son Viktor and his wife Suzanne, they bask in a never-ending banquet of all three. They trade with a local farmer for milk and eggs, and the family’s supply of goods to barter seems fresh and endless. The greatest problem at the local school isn’t Nazism or rationing but lice, and the classrooms seem divided between those with hair and those whose scalps are cut bare. By the end of Berri’s film the number of bald children has grown exponentially, including Claude—his punishment for sending an anonymous, affectionate, and error-ridden postcard to the farmer’s daughter, which Grampa and Viktor penned aloud and drunk—and the penalty evokes an immediately response. Suddenly he is an outcast—wrongly marked, as it were, for the innocence of his nature. His appearance is evocative of those interred in concentration camp, and it’s an immediate connection back to his Jewish heritage.
Thereafter, Berri alludes to a moral shift in both the Dupont family and the French country as a whole. Home-schooled by Grampa after his expulsion, Claude and the old man spend much of their day engaged in recreation. Where Claude’s father chased him around the dining table in anger, Grampa chases him around a similar table in the midst of fun. They play with a slingshot—a toy used by bullies to harass Claude in school—and end up breaking a bedroom window. And when a blackout forces Grandma to find and light candles over their meal, the moment’s ironic look—both Claude and Grampa are wearing hats—forces Claude to ask, “So we’re eating like Jews do?” The most telling instance, though, occurs on a hillside, where both man and boy take turns on a wood-and-rope swing. First is Claude on the chipped board, rocking back and forth and wearing an oversized hat; and then, almost without incident, the two switch, and Grampa is the one moving wildly through the air. And the true nature of Berri’s story is revealed—rather than the young boy taking up Grampa’s prejudices, it is Grampa who has taken up the boy’s unassuming spirit. (Though Grampa is by no means cured of his prejudices; when Claude tells him the war’s end will mark the return of Jews, his response is, “You know, don’t worry about the Jews. They can’t be any worse than the others.”)
In a 2007 interview, available on the Criterion disc, Claude Berri remarks that his two leads – Michel Simon as Grampa and Alain Cohen as Claude – were incredible, that they needed no instruction from him as to how their characters needed to be played, only how a scene should feel: “There was nothing for me to say,” he recalls. Truly Simon, a screen legend who had previously worked with great filmmakers like Dreyer and Renoir and Vigo, fills the screen with a lost humanity that only emerges in the final half-hour; as the film closes, and both he and Luce Fabiole’s Grandma watch from beneath an umbrella as Claude disappears on a bus, the film leaves us with a fade of immense heartbreak. When asked in a 1967 interview, also available on the disc, what drew him to Claude Berri’s film, Michel Simon said, “With Claude Berri, it was his innocence. It’s extraordinary to make a film on such a difficult subject. It’s filled with pitfalls. Pitfalls for him, and also pitfalls for me. That hooked me in immediately, plus he was so enthusiastic and such a dreamer. I was thrilled that in 1967 there were still dreamers and poets in the streets.”