June 28, 2016
My Summer of Rohmer continues with Claire’s Knee (1970), the fifth of the director’s Six Moral Tales. It is a story of fidelity and an experiment in desire, in which a betrothed vacationer enters into a flirtation with two teenage girls. As with La Collectionneuse (which I wrote about last week), it takes place within the span of a summer holiday, this time on Lake Annecy in Haute-Savoie. Instead of enjoying the transcendent view of the Alps, Rohmer’s characters debate the nature of love, whether it is an act of will or something more…elusive. Summer is once again used as a crucible to test one’s belief. La Collectionneuse depicts the curdling of male desire outside of Saint-Tropez, while the male protagonist of Claire’s Knee is trying to trigger his lust in an attempt to overcome it.
The man is Jérôme (Jean-Claude Brialy) a rakish diplomat living in Sweden who returns to Haute-Savoie in order to sell his family’s vacation home. While there he runs into Aurora (Aurora Cornu), a writer and provocateur who challenges Jérôme to pursue a flirtation with the reflective teenage girl next door, Laura (Beatrice Romand), who harbors a crush on him. This adventure will help Aurora invent an ending for her unfinished novel, and kill the remaining time left on her holiday. Jérôme accepts Aurora’s invitation, to help out a friend , indulge his baser instincts, and to test the strength of his love for his fiancee Lucinde. His puppy-love flirtation with Laura, which they both quickly tire of, further cements his love for his betrothed, but then he spies Laura’s half-sister Claire, a waifish beauty with a distractingly sculptural knee. Jérôme pours his remaining energies into touching that joint, for if he can channel his unwieldy desire into that one chaste locale, it will re-confirm his feelings for Lucinde. With Lucinde he does not have the same power over his will, his emotions emanate from something beyond. Lucinde “is everything. You can’t add to everything.”
Like all of the Moral Tales, Claire’s Knee originated as story Rohmer had written years earlier, one from the ’40s entitled, “Who is Like God?”. It started with the de Sade epigram, “It is not pleasure that makes people happy, but desire and the obstacles that are put in the way of realizing that desire.” The basic set-up was already present, of a thirty-something about to marry who dallies with two teenagers near his vacation home. In the final version of the story, also titled “Claire’s Knee” (1949), the man, Jérôme, spies the girls playing tennis, and hides their balls to lure them to his home. This is a more predatory scenario than that in the film, and Rohmer has Aurora present this earlier version as an idea for a novel she was never able to complete. So in the film Jérôme agrees to playact the character from her book, adding to the blurring of reality and fiction that Rohmer was so skillful at with his performers.
Aurora Cornu, a Romanian writer, essentially played herself. According to Eric Rohmer, A Biography (Columbia University Press) Rohmer, “had known this woman of letters for many years and liked her frankness and anti-conformism. Together, they spent whole afternoons reorganizing the world on the second floor of the Cafe de Flore or visiting Parisian churches.” In the film Rohmer has her recreate their lively discussions with Jean-Claude Brialy, whom Rohmer liked for his dandified looks. He only gave him one instruction before shooting: “to let his beard grow.” Laurence de Monaghan, who played Claire at the age of 16, was spotted coming out of the Royal Saint-Germain hotel, a non-professional actor who had the ethereal look Rohmer was seeking.
The most striking performances in the film come from the youngsters, especially Beatrice Romand as Laura and Fabrice Luchini as her motormouthed friend Vincent. Romand looks like a sly sylph under a mop of curls, and is one of those rare actors who can convey the act of thinking without saying a word. Her face is a seismograph of reactions to Jérôme’s flirtations, at once ecstatic, disbelieving, and suspicious. It turns out the latter is correct, and midway through the movie she pivots her attentions from the debonair Jérôme to the gawky, overactive Vincent, embodied in a thoroughly charming performance by Luchini. His body has not quite balanced out yet, so he speaks as fast as possible to distract from his awkwardness. He impressed Rohmer by reciting Nietzsche to him the first time they met, and “made the whole Claire’s Knee group laugh until they cried by imitating Rohmer or by developing one of the far-fetched theories that were his specialty – to the point that Rohmer let him improvise his own text in front of the camera.”
Following the success of La Collectionneuse and My Night at Maud’s, Rohmer was granted his largest budget to date, thanks to an investment from Bert Schneider (of BBS Productions), who had just produced Easy Rider. Though it filmed in a rapid six weeks, Rohmer had a full crew for the first time, complete with set photographer and camera dolly. He had so much time to prepare that, according to co-producer Barbet Schroeder, “the maddest case of anticipation was for the sequence in which Jean-Claude Brialy leans down to pick a rose. A year earlier, Rohmer had planted the rose at the spot where it was supposed to bloom, calculating the date when it would open, which was written down in the work plan…Everything happened as planned!”
Once again Nestor Almendros was the director of photography, opting for a cooler mountainous palette than the hothouse of La Collectionneuse. Still utilizing the 1.33:1 frame, the film unspools in a series of calm centered two-shots, as Jérôme determinedly goes about his seductive business. For Jérôme his love for Lucinde has been sanctified as something beyond desire while for Claire and Laura he is a rather clumsy, if handsome, intruder upon their still developing amorous adventures, which often spill outside the frame. Jérôme and Aurora hold the center, with Laura and Claire going beyond. They have their own affairs to get in order and desires to slake.