To many, the name Claude Berri doesn’t mean all that much. Studied cinephiles may recognize the name as the one attached to the directing credit of the underrated classic Jean de Florette, while others may simply be ignorant to the director’s filmography completely. However, with an Oscar, 21 directed-by films and nearly 60 producing credits to the French filmmaker’s name, there is a treasure trove of motion pictures just waiting to be rediscovered. And thankfully that appears to be happening.
As part of the Quad Cinema’s A Very Berri Christmas retrospective, Cohen Films is premiering a new, 50th Anniversary restoration of one of Berri’s most beloved works, The Two Of Us. An autobiographical work, this marked Berri’s directorial debut, and stars Alain Cohen as Claude, a young boy caught in the middle of World War II. Sent from Nazi-occupied France to live with a Catholic family in the countryside, Claude encounters and ultimately sparks a close friendship with the Anti-Semitic Pepe, played by the legendary Michel Simon. Released during the peak of the French New Wave, Berri’s picture is an emotionally dense and classically crafted meditation on hate and prejudice, a film that is at once a far cry from the types of pictures made during the period and yet as pertinent today as it has ever been.
Autobiographical in nature, Two Of Us is, in context of its initial release, a startlingly classical piece of work. More closely related to the films Berri would start his career as an actor in, names like Renoir will leap to mind before his directing contemporaries, who themselves were making films like La Chinoise and Le Samourai around this period. Told in gorgeous, contrast heavy black and white, Berri’s camera is intimate and tender, giving what fellow French auteur Francois Truffaut would describe as “the real film” about the Nazi occupation of France. Telling the story of people caught not on one side or the other but simply on the fringes of survival, Berri is intrinsically interested in that gray part of humanity’s spirit. Look at his Pepe character. A vile anti-Semite, he’s also a compassionate vegetarian, who cares for his pet dog in a manner that deserves absolute admiration. This is a deeply human film that has zero interest in painting in black and whites intellectually.
Truly a tense motion picture, Two Of Us is driven by its brilliant lead pair of performances as well as some truly inspire photography and production design, all of which come to new life in this new 4K restoration. Crisp and as vivid aesthetically as it is quietly thrilling narratively, Berri’s film is given a new energy thanks to Cohen’s assures hand in restoring the picture. Sadly now out of the hands of The Criterion Collection, one can only hope that this will arrive on Blu-ray soon, as this is about as good a work of restoration as you’re bound to see in the next calendar year.
For more information about this and the retrospective it is part of, head over to The Quad Cinema’s website.