Thursday, June 13, 2019

Classic Movie Review: Claire's Knee (1970)

Claire's Knee (1970)
Directed by: Éric Rohmer.
Written by: Éric Rohmer.
Starring: Jean-Claude Brialy (Jerome), Aurora Cornu (Aurora, the novelist), Béatrice Romand (Laura), Laurence de Monaghan (Claire), Michèle Montel (Madame Walter), Gérard Falconetti (Gilles), Fabrice Luchini (Vincent).
Claire’s Knee is the first of Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales to completely eliminate the voiceover narration that figured heavily in the first three (chronologically) – The Bakery Girl of Monceau, Suzanne’s Career and La Collectionneuse, but was very limited in My Night at Maud’s (it will make a comeback in Chloe in the Afternoon). And yet, in a way, it doesn’t need that voiceover, because essentially the protagonist feels the constant need to explain himself to his friend – Aurora – who sets him on his journey in the film. Like all the Six Moral Tales, the protagonist – here it’s Jerome (Jean-Claude Brialy), a Frenchmen, living abroad, engaged to married a diplomat’s daughter, who returns to his beachside house in France – alone – in order to get it ready for sale – spends most of the movie obsessed with a girl who he isn’t with, but will eventually leave to return to his fiancé. And yet, there are quite a few differences here as well.
If you didn’t know the basic plot, you may think the girl he’ll be obsessed with is Aurora (Aurora Cornu) – and in a way, I think he is. Aurora is the more classic Rohmer unknowable woman in the film – smarter, darker, more “difficult” – and the one Jerome actually connects with. But perhaps out of her own perverse joy, she challenges Jerome to do something else – essentially to flirt with the two teenage daughters of her landlady. In the first part of the film, Jerome develops a friendship with Laura (Beatrice Romand_ - all of about 16 – who is open to the attention of this middle-aged man, and flirts back. Later, Jerome will move onto Laura’s older half-sister Claire (Laurence de Monaghan), a blonde, skinny, attractive, often clad in a bikini and with her boyfriend Gilles (Gerard Falconetti). And Jerome becomes obsessed with the idea of touching Claire’s knee – which he discovers when he watches her climb and ladder – and then he conspires to find a way to touch it himself.
I cannot help but wonder what the reaction to the film would be today – if it would just be dismissed as another dirty old man obsessed with teenage girls film – a French Woody Allen film as it were, and to be honest, it probably would. But that’s not really what Rohmer has made here. There is a long conversation fairly late in the film between Jerome and Aurora, where Jerome justifies everything he has done – the flirting with a 16-year-old, his desire to touch Claire’s knee, as being something that his “character” wants – essentially turning the tables back on Aurora, who dared him to do in the first place. Therefore, everything he has done, and is trying to do, is just him playing a role. He insists – much like all male Rohmer characters in these films, that even if Claire tried to seduce him, he would reject her. He has no desire for her – but, you see, his character does. He does hate Gilles however – saying that he’s boorish and beneath Claire – and that she should get away from him as quickly as possible. He uses this – and what he sees from his boat – in a scene late in the film to try and break Claire done – get her emotional, so that he can touch that knee – surely in a consoling manner – and get her to break up with Gilles. He leaves the film triumphant – believing he has accomplished his goal, but Rohmer sneakily adds a scene right at the end that completely undermines his “victory”.
All of Rohmer’s male protagonists in these movies are deluded in some way – Jerome more than most. He talks about how physical attractiveness doesn’t much matter to him – it’s the character of the person that matters. This is something they say, but is demonstrably false. Rohmer men always choose the safe option, over the more complicated one in the women they end up with. We see this play out in a number of ways in Claire’s Knee – the overall arc being the same, as the others, but with differences as well. Because, of course, Laura is the smarter of the two teenagers – the one who actually does fall for Jerome, but is also smart enough to know that it is merely a passing crush, and although the feelings are acute, they will not last. She and Jerome can have long talks with each other, and engage in the way Jerome says he likes. But then he runs to Claire – because of that damn knee. Claire is a kind of empty character by design – there doesn’t seem to be much going on with her, she is content to play volleyball, lounge on the beach, and be with Gilles. Yet, perhaps, that’s just because she has no real interest in Jerome – in anyway. She isn’t interested in talking to him, and doesn’t particularly care what his opinion on anything is. He’s just some guy – an acquaintance of the “tenant” – and she doesn’t give him a thought. That, of course, makes him obsess about her even more.
Claire’s Knee is probably the best of the Six Moral Tales – although I think saying that is a distinction without much of a difference. It is the most beautiful film – shot by the brilliant cinematographer Nestor Almendros, who died too young of AIDS, but did some of the best work anyone has ever done in the field (Malick’s Days of Heaven – although he worked often with Rohmer and Francois Truffaut as well Barbet Schreoder, Maurice Pialat, Monte Hellman, Jean Eustache and Martin Scorsese). Claire’s Knee contains some of his best work – the beautiful scenery, and the way he captures Jerome’s voyeurism.
It is also, I think, the most complex of the movies – the one that leaves you with the most questions, some of them perhaps accidental. The other women in the Six Moral Tales all seem to be willing participants in the games the men are playing. As insipid as Claire seems to be, there is no sense that she is here – she is pawn, being used by two older people, and doesn’t even know it. It’s telling that Rohmer ends the film on her, not Jerome. Yes, he is doing it to undermine his victory – even if he doesn’t know it. But it’s more than that as well. It shows just what she’ll go onto become. It’s not happy – even if it has little to nothing to do with Jerome.

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