CLAIRE’S KNEE (Eric Rohmer, 1970)

The crisis for a man of turning forty: this is the theme of the fifth in Eric Rohmer’s series of ‘moral tales,’ Claire’s Knee (Le genou de Claire), an elegant, ironic comedy. Rohmer, who both wrote and directed, had himself just turned fifty—a similar, even more painful milestone. (I know.)

Jérôme—Jean-Claude Brialy, in perhaps his richest role—is a French foreign diplomat, just weeks before his wedding, alone on holiday in the countryside near Lake Annency. There he runs into an old friend, Aurora, a writer, also on holiday. (Smart and, in a grown-up way, gorgeous, the writer Aurora is deliciously played by . . . the writer Aurora Cornu.) In an effort to break through writer’s block, Aurora concocts with Jérôme an amusing episode for him to act out so that she can see where it might lead: a gentle flirtation with the teenaged daughter of the woman whose houseguest Aurora is. Jérôme and Laura—Béatrice Romand, smashing—do become friends; but romance between them fizzles. All is not lost, however. For Jérôme stealthily pursues a sudden attraction for Laura’s very pretty half-sister, Claire (Laurence De Monaghan), the epitome of promising adolescence on the verge of dull womanhood. Agreeing with Aurora that his pursuit must be chaste for the ‘story’ to be interesting, Jérôme becomes obligingly fixated on the girl’s knee, which in order to caress he is determined to find, or contrive, a fitting occasion.

To say the least, here is one of the most intriguing plots ever devised for an original scenario. (If plots there must be!) That, however, and the fact that the film is replete with exceptionally witty conversation may mislead a careless viewer—someone, for instance, glancing away from the film in order to attend to the profuse subtitles—away from Rohmer’s core of insights. For Jérôme, highly complex, regularly misinterprets reality, including actions of his own, partly as a defense against the malaise with which time’s ever more hurried passage has beset him. Indeed, Rohmer impresses the narrative with Jérôme’s (and perhaps his own) obsession with time by dividing the film into episodes and tagging each with a chronologically dated desk calendar insert. (Cumulatively these inserts bear the import, psychological and symbolical, of ticking clocks in a Bergman film.) The origin of Jérôme’s fixation on Claire’s knee: this, also, Rohmer discloses visually; for, early on, the camera—subjective with Jérôme at this point—catches sight of someone else’s hand on that part of her anatomy. The fond hand in question belongs, appropriately enough, to Claire’s boyfriend, Gilles. How dare this boy possess the youth Jérôme not so distantly remembers! Jérôme’s innocent ‘pursuit’ of Claire, then, aims at replacing Gilles’s hand on her knee with his own in an attempt to reclaim his own lost youth. Quite proud of being in control of his life, however, Jérôme is scarcely inclined to rouse this motivation from his unconscious so as to recognize it. Instead, he assaults Gilles’s character, casting aspersions on Gilles’s fidelity, all in an effort to destroy Gilles and Claire’s relationship. Especially in one so highly intelligent and analytical, Jérôme’s lack of self-awareness is bracing, to say the least. We are left to wonder: What don’t I understand about myself that I think I do?

Jérôme’s crisis is the key; his difficulty at coping with the sudden implications of middle age, coupled with his refusal to acknowledge and address these feelings, has left him quite beside himself—a point Rohmer makes brilliantly by having the character in effect split himself so that an alternative Jérôme can act out Aurora’s storyline. The original Jérôme, however, seems passive in his own life to the point of dispiritedness; and, while Jérôme’s two selves come together briefly, and electrifyingly, when at last both caress Claire’s knee, his ongoing self-misunderstanding leaves one doubting the wisdom of his upcoming marriage—an event, perhaps, largely precipitated by his mid-life crisis.

A celebrated aspect of Rohmer’s film is the overpoweringly beautiful color cinematography that Nestor Almendros contributes. However, our delight in its sheer beauty shouldn’t blind us to its purpose—that is, the artistic use to which Rohmer puts the heady visual descriptions of river, grass, flowers, mountains and sky. For Jérôme’s not quite fitting into these beauteous surroundings of his youth clarifies the film’s main theme and provides its most poignant, and devastating, commentary.

Cool and penetrating, Claire’s Knee reminds how foolishly self-involved we can be. Coping with his anxiety, Jérôme doesn’t sufficiently engage Aurora beyond the topic of himself to discover, except very late, that she too is about to marry. In retrospect, we realize that Aurora’s writer’s block manifests her mid-life crisis.

Here is one of the loveliest comedies—one that bears fresh viewings to accommodate new rungs up the ladder of one’s own age. While falling just short of Rohmer’s finest achievements (including My Night at Maud’s, 1969, Le beau mariage, 1981, and A Tale of Winter, 1994), Claire’s Knee is splendid enough to justify its acclaim: the Best Film Louis Delluc prize in France, the top prize to Rohmer at the San Sebastian International Film Festival, Best Foreign-Language Film in the States from the National Board Board of Review, and Best Film from the National Society of Film Critics.

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