ESFS Festivals

Rohmer’s Moral Tales: “La Collectionneuse” and “Claire’s Knee” Reviews

La Collectionneuse

La Collectionneuse (1967; Eric Rohmer)


By Daniel Barnes

Two-thirds of the way through Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales series, I feel that I know exactly what to expect from the French filmmaker, and yet still remain utterly mystified. In writing about his movies, I often feel like one of his characters – outwardly self-confident in order to conceal canyons of self-deception and doubt. His films leave me feeling enchanted and invigorated, even if the journey was occasionally a drag. Rohmer makes movies that I want to kick off my shoes and doze off to on a warm Saturday afternoon. I’m uncertain whether I mean that pejoratively or not.

An argument could be made that watching these six films, with their myriad similarities and crucially subtle differences, in such close sequence can lead to a certain amount of abstraction. Our impacted festival format highlights auteur tendencies and thematic obsessions brighter and more starkly than if watched over many years, or in random order. However, in a case like Rohmer’s Moral Tales or Antonioni’s Alienation Trilogy, it has the potential to make the individual films feel like variables in a mathematical equation. I fear that I may have undervalued – or at least unfairly written off – Antonioni’s L’Eclisse, if only because as the anchor leg in the Alienation Trilogy festival, it felt like a paler version of the preceding pictures.

La Collectionneuse is considered the fourth film in the Moral Tales series, even though it was completed and released two years before My Night at Maud’s, which suffered production delays. The sequencing feels right, though – La Collectionneuse is the first color film in the series, and even though it is ostensibly set two years earlier than Maud’s, it feels at least two years more modern. While the internal/moral/sexual conflict in Maud’s seemed to spring from a mid-1960’s bourgeois repression, La Collectionneuse is fully immersed in the late 1960’s youth culture of casual sex and drug use (and bourgeois repression).

Still, La Collectionneuse follows largely the same narrative pattern as the previous films, which all involve an aloof, “morally righteous” man who pines for one girl (usually blonde and seemingly unattainable), yet fixates on a “plainer” girl that he finds less worthy of his worship, and thus an easily bed-able temptress. The three main characters also fit a basic Rohmer template, here introduced in a trilogy of prologues:

1)      Haydee (Haydee Politof), “the girl” – in all films, seemingly possessive of promiscuity that the male characters assume extends to them; in La Collectionneuse, a figure of sexual objectification from the first silent frames of her bikini-clad body parts.

2)      Daniel (Daniel Pommereulle), “the cad” – more brash and declamatory than any other Rohmer archetype, but no less deceptive, nor any less willing to use endless philosophical blather as emotional camouflage.

3)      Adrien (Patrick Bauchau) “the shy moralist” – always fixated on one girl, then on to another that he resists and professes to loathe, and then by chance back on to the first girl, but with lingering doubts. As laid out in the festival intro, the great quandary with these largely unaggressive figures is where to draw the line between moral choice and shy inaction.

Here, Adrien is an aspiring art gallery owner who seeks solitude in the months leading up to his career-making debut, allowing his beautiful girlfriend to leave for London while he remains at a countryside timeshare. In his often misleading narration (another familiar Rohmer trope), Adrien informs us that he seeks to reach new levels of isolation and sloth. And he achieves it…for about one morning before the young and alluring Haydee becomes the center of his universe.

Haydee is also staying at the country estate, and although they have obvious sexual chemistry, Adrien resists, belittles, and deflects her on to other men, all the while burning with jealous detachment. A seemingly guileless girl with a heart-shaped face and the sad, inviting eyes common to most Rohmer heroines, Haydee is nudged first into the bed of the casually cruel Daniel, and then on to an aged art collector that Adrien is trying to impress.  Adrien claims that his resistance to Haydee is due to a “protective moral fortress,” and while this film is less ostensibly Catholic than My Night at Maud’s, it streams from that same fountainhead of silent faith and ostentatious morality.

While Rohmer’s first two features are titanic technical leaps forward from his short films (having Days of Heaven cinematographer Nestor Almendros in the fold doesn’t hurt!), La Collectionneuse is still pretty cinematically sedate, with the visual beauty arising from careful composition and spry editing.  The movements within the frame have a seductive mystery reminiscent of Antonioni, even if Rohmer doesn’t possess a camera eye even close to his level.

In lieu of a consistently compelling visual element, Rohmer revels in narrative and character misleads – a fashion model argues for substance over beauty; cruelty is cherished and affection is mistrusted; sincerity never amounts to honesty; blind chance dictates “moral decisions”; and all of that self-indulgent, hyper-intellectual, revelatory talk talk talk is a smokescreen for buried desire and bubbling guilt.  To boot, it’s often quite funny – “I serve mankind by taking it easy,” boasts Adrien.  So does Rohmer.

Claire's Knee Rohmer

Claire’s Knee (1970; Eric Rohmer)


By Daniel Barnes

In my review of La Collectionneuse last week, I made this admission about French auteur Eric Rohmer, a director whose work I had never seen before this festival:

“Rohmer makes movies that I want to kick off my shoes and doze off to on a warm Saturday afternoon. I’m uncertain whether I mean that pejoratively or not.”

While it upends the Moral Tales format in some compelling ways, Claire’s Knee did little overall to shake me from that pleasantly relaxed (and perplexed) state. This wistful and complex 1970 comedy is once again set mostly at an idyllic seaside estate in the south of France, and it’s filled with images of rolling, sun-soaked hills, while the soundtrack is dominated by lapping waves, chirping birds, and soothing French accents. It’s like pushing every button on a sleep noise machine at once.

Of course, this sedate mood overlooks the fact that Rohmer is a master screenwriting tactician, and as I stated in my review of Suzanne’s Career, any of Rohmer’s shortcomings as a visual artist are mitigated by his schematic brilliance. There are so many misdirects, re-directs, honest lies, and tragic delusions buried within seemingly formless conversations, I wanted the guy who drew up the diagram that explains the time travel in Primer to construct a flow chart of the moral and emotional smoke rings that waft through Claire’s Knee, if only so I could keep track of the alternate, self-defensive realities that our protagonist constructs in his own head.

This time around, the shyly amorous and morally conflicted hero is Jerome (Jean-Claude Brialy), a lifelong diplomat who has returned to France to sell his old family home. In typical Rohmer fashion, the newly engaged Jerome has a chance encounter with a female friend early on, in this case, a Hungarian novelist named Aurora. Jerome begins to fixate on and follow her, and while he glorifies their platonic relationship, his touchy-feely body language belies lustier designs.

Uninterested, Aurora callously deflects him on to the nubile teenage daughters of her landlord, first the curly-haired and gangly younger sister Laura, and then with no prodding necessary on to the blonde Venus older sister Claire. Jerome is a classic Rohmer protagonist, completely prepared to warp his sexual desires and personal defects into moral philosophy, but he’s also one of the most disturbing and depressing.

This is the first Moral Tales film where the hero does not narrate the film – instead, Rohmer shapes the action with dates scrawled in a notebook, like diary entries – and with greater narrative distance, the outwardly benign Jerome seems more potentially dangerous. “She disturbs my character,” says Jerome of Claire, although he held no such character concerns when earlier attempting to make time with the 15-year-old Laura. He believes that his affection for these women gives him ownership over them, even when the affection is definitively unreciprocated.

The fidelity v. lust dynamic of the unattainable blonde and the gawky brunette is also classic Rohmer, and Jerome sexually abstracts Claire so severely that the touch of her knee becomes more tender and transporting than sex. I outlined the three Rohmer archetypes in my La Collectionneuse review, but Claire’s Knee is the first film in the Moral Tales series to subvert the formula to some degree. Here, “the cad” figure is the female writer, and rather than being brash and abrasive, she is coolly manipulative and oddly empathetic, and the final shots are from her point-of-view.

“I don’t invent, I discover,” claims Aurora, even as she freely admits that Jerome is her “guinea pig.” Still, Jerome’s attempts to blame Aurora for his own moral lassitude also ring hollow, and Claire’s Knee is rife with those sorts of delicately constructed dichotomies. Rohmer favors open questions over absolutes: What is the difference between blind chance and fate? Or between faith and delusion? Is Laura an innocent or a tease? Does desire follow possession or the other way around?  “Why one and not another?”

Claire’s Knee is probably the freshest, best crafted, and most surprising of the five Moral Tales films that we have watched so far, but it’s also the most leisurely, and it is still hard for me to shake that warm, lawn chair feeling with Rohmer.  However, once removed from the impacted, sequential viewing pattern of the festival – a self-created abstraction worthy of a Rohmer protagonist – Claire’s Knee is probably the feature that I am most likely to revisit for a solo voyage.

Read more of Daniel’s reviews at Dare Daniel and Rotten Tomatoes, and listen to Daniel on the Dare Daniel podcast.

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