“At the same time, it was my good deed.”
In my teens, I was lucky enough to see my first-ever foreign films–Belle de Jour (Luis Bunuel), and Claire’s Knee (Eric Rohmer). Both films were a major revelation to me, and both films triggered a life-long love of French cinema.
Claire’s Knee (Le Genou de Claire) is film 5 in director Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales series, but it is not necessary to watch the other films in the series to make sense of Claire’s Knee. However, Rohmer films are really only for the serious French film aficionado. Rohmer’s critics charge that his films are pretentious and boring, and while it is true that Rohmer films are not noted for their action sequences, nonetheless, I find his films fascinating and re-watch many of them when I have the chance. Most of Rohmer’s films are full of conversations between characters, and if you find the characters interesting, or if the issues they face intrigue you, then you may enjoy Rohmer films. However, if you dislike one Rohmer film, you will probably dislike them all. And no one seems to be blase on the subject–he’s a director whose films you either love and rave about or you loathe and avoid.
Rohmer seems to have an obsession with French people on holiday, and Claire’s Knee is not an exception to that. In Claire’s Knee, 35-year-old diplomat Jerome (Jean-Claude Brialy) visits his holiday home located near the French-Swiss border at Lake Annecy. He is preparing to sell the property prior to his upcoming marriage to long-time girlfriend, Lucinde. Here Jerome meets writer and long-time acquaintance, Aurora (Aurora Cornu), who is staying with a female friend and her 2 teenage daughters, Laura (Beatrice Romand) and Claire (Laurence de Monaghan). Aurora professes to be in the midst of a struggle with a fictional character–an older man who is obsessed with younger girls. Jerome makes a strange bargain with Aurora, and he agrees that he will encourage Laura to fall in love with him. Aurora claims that observing the relationship Jerome has with Laura will help her solve the plot difficulties she is experiencing. Is Aurora’s interest in encouraging a relationship between Jerome and Laura motivated by dispassionate intellectual curiosity as she claims, or is there something darker afoot? And why does Jerome agree to indulge Aurora?
But Laura, in spite of her youth and inexperience, possesses a charming wisdom that unnerves Jerome, and then Laura’s half-sister Claire arrives. Claire is much less introspective and appears to be more experienced. Jerome discovers that Claire “troubles” him with a “real and undefined desire,” and he quickly becomes obsessed with the idea of touching Claire’s knee.
Jerome plays a strange game. On the one hand, he’s getting married to Lucinde because their long-standing relationship has never dulled–in spite of the fact that during a confession to Aurora, Jerome admits that both he and Lucinde have ‘strayed.’ Jerome argues that he doesn’t “look at women any more,” and the sense is that Jerome has now decided, at age 35, to ‘settle down.’ Passion seems to have little to do with it, and while Jerome professes disinterest in all other women, there’s a subtle hint or two that he wouldn’t exactly be averse to a holiday fling with Aurora if she felt so inclined. Aurora, on the other hand, makes one or two slight but significant comments about Jerome’s relationships with women.
Aurora delicately avoids any physical entanglement with Jerome and instead appears to be intrigued with him as a ‘character’ in a literary sense. Explaining that characters have their “own logic” Aurora maintains that in a novel sometimes what doesn’t happen is as interesting as what does happen. The idea of the interest in non-action is never clearer than in Rohmer’s films. In Claire’s Knee the fascination with the non-occurrence is carried out with sheer perfection, and the interest remains in the question–‘what actions will a character take in a certain situation?’ Rohmer is a very prolific director, but the languorous film Claire’s Knee remains one of my very favourites. Keep an eye open for a very young Fabrice Luchini in the role of Vincent, Laura’s boyfriend.