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 a 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 an 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.
*NEXT WEEK: Mike Dub reviews the final movie in the Rohmer’s Moral Tales festival, the 1972 film Love in the Afternoon.
*LATER THIS WEEK: In their Monthly Movies feature, Daniel and Dub pay tribute to birthday boy Billy Wilder, who would have turned 108 this June 22, by highlighting a couple of the great director’s more underrated features.