Director: Éric Rohmer
Time: 1 hour and 46 minutes
Where Can I Get It: Criterion Channel (free w/subscription)
What It Evokes: Romantic frisson, complicated age differences, morality tales
First, allow me to apologize for the weeklong absence. Second, Claire’s Knee. Éric Rohmer gets classified as a French New Wave director, grouped alongside many of his French contemporaries (Godard, Truffaut, Varda, etc.). This designation emerges out of his association with the magazine Cahiers du Cinema, that veritable bastion of 1950s and 1960s film writing which featured (prior to their emergence as important directors) essays by many of the filmmakers associated with formally innovative French film in the 1960s, each forwarding their views on filmmaking and appreciation. On one level, Rohmer’s connections (intellectual and spatial) to leading lights of the “movement” justify his inclusion. On another, their insistence upon innovative techniques (think: the cuts beginning Godard’s Breathless) and their rejection of conventional narrative construction stand in contrast to Rohmer’s philosophically probing and meticulously assembled “Morality Tales”—he made six—each of which constructs (more or less artificially) a central dilemma revolving around romantic relationships. Within these contexts, his protagonists tend to be highly literate and solipsistic young men, eager to articulate the inherent tension between desire and abstract ethical precept yet prey to self-serving justifications when it comes to their own actions within this frame. They remain earnest but flawed, self-aware yet capable of enormous self-oversight. Most of his films feature voice-over narration (often from a character) or an individual who pushes the moment to its ethical crisis. These are not the iconoclastic and “unstructured” plot lines generally associated with the Nouvelle Vague.
Claire’s Knee features just such a central male protagonist, Jerome, an erstwhile rake now engaged, and a central female character, Aurora—a writer thinking through plots for her own novels—who constructs a series of interactions which challenge Jerome’s commitment to his newfound embrace of monogamy. Jerome, Aurora, and a family featuring two daughters (Laura, 16, and Claire, a bit older) are all vacationing in Lake Annecy in eastern France. Laura develops a crush on Jerome. Aurora lets this information slip to Jerome, who begins to indulge Laura’s feelings while, at the same time, finding his own in flux. Soon thereafter, Claire arrives with her boyfriend—each in their way instantiations of a youth and beauty no longer accessible to Jerome. Desire, feelings, prior commitments, rejection, and power all feature within this unfurling drama, forwarding questions around control, cruelty, and attachment. On some level, a film about an older man engaging with the feelings (“playing with,” one might say, until it becomes unclear who controls what) of a young woman risks reinforcing many of the inappropriate gender dynamics which have come under greater (and much deserved) scrutiny of late. Yet, though Claire’s Knee features an emotional (and flirtatious relationship) between a 16-year-old and a much older man, it remains too sensitive to the vicissitudes of relational dynamics (too unwilling to indulge easy stereotypes around gender and power) to either condemn or absolve its own characters. These are individuals, not types, and individuals are complicated. People make poor choices. Empathy dwindles in the face of humiliation and desire merged. This is not to declare the film’s politics those of our own period, merely to underscore the ways in which Rohmer remains the consummate observer of human behavior in its messy, complex, and thorny manifestations, eschewing easy answers and probing deeply into pretty fundamental questions concerning how we interact with one another.
Go Down The Rabbit Hole With:
Éric Rohmer — My Night At Maud’s (1970)
Éric Rohmer — The Green Ray (1986)