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.


June 21, 2016


Summer has officially arrived, along with the mounting pressure to enjoy it before it passes. The filmmaker who  most deeply investigated the contradictions of the sweaty months is Eric Rohmer, whose summer films contain placid surfaces rippled by violent speech. His characters are surrounded by beauty and inevitably beset by anxieties of how their time there is being wasted, ticking away. Since I have no summer getaway planned, I have chosen instead to get away with Rohmer, by viewing his summer-set films, and writing about them throughout the season. My guide will be the door stopping Eric Rohmer: A Biography (Columbia University Press), by Antoine Baecque and Noël Herpe (newly translated by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal). First up is La Collectionneuse (1967), part of his series of Six Moral Tales, a chronicle of a poisoned vacation near Saint-Tropez. Two men attempt to subsume themselves in nature, but instead resort to their true selves when a young woman joins the house, whereupon they descend to macho posing and bickering.


La Collectionneuse originated in a short story that Rohmer wrote in 1949 entitled, “Chantal, ou l’épreuve” (Chantal, or the test), and was the third of his “Moral Tales” to be filmed (after The Bakery Girl of Monceauand Suzanne’s Career, both 1963), though it was the fourth in Rohmer’s intended order. He had to delay My Night at Maud’s for funding issues, so the cheaper Collectionneuse, which takes place almost entirely at one location, went first. The story was about two dandies who stay in a villa with a young woman of dubious reputation who had “an angelic face, a dazzling complexion, and the manners of a middle-school student.” Rohmer adapted the basic scenario for Collectionneuse, and brought along friends to make it on a shoestring. Having recently come off making a string of educational films for French schools, Rohmer was especially interested in documentary experiments, which, he wrote,

“A welcome development is emerging in the domain of informative film that resembles less and less a picture album accompanied by a sonorous and hollow commentary. …The means used are very direct, drawing mainly on the speech of the interview, on debate, on conversation, all of which are means, despite what people have said, that are highly cinematic and modern. Thus alongside the fiction film, a domain that is infinitely vaster than that of classic documentary is being constituted.”

He would carry over some of these lessons to Collectionneuse, on which he would record “remarks made by his actors, who had been asked to speak freely about their passions and love affairs.” Rohmer bent the fiction to fit the reality of his performers, who were mostly non-professionals.


Adrien (Patrick Bauchau, A View to a Kill) is an art collector in the process of raising funds to start his own gallery. Needing a break from the stress, he accepts a friend’s offer to stay at his vacation house outside of Saint-Tropez. Also there is Daniel (Daniel Pommereulle), a mercurial sculptor with time to kill, and Haydée (Haydée Politoff), a young woman who is playing the field, heading out with a new man almost every night. Adrien undertook “to really do nothing”, Daniel was his partner in embracing the void, while Haydée went about her nighttime searches for love. Daniel and Adrien have reached a state of decadence and rot, ready to concede the end of the ’60s dream. They wear ratty nightgowns  while Haydée is grasping for the future. Daniel and Adrian treat their life as a game, and Haydée as a pawn, a diversion from their boring adult lives, not realizing that she has already surpassed them.


Bauchau was a friend of Rohmer’s producer Barbet Schroeder, and had been a co-producer on the French New Wave omnibus films Paris Seen By…, which Rohmer organized. He is a lithe, leonine performer, a man aware of his own beauty who can easily convey Adrien’s perplexity when Haydée does not swoon over him. She becomes a curiosity and a puzzle to Adrien’s narcissistic mind.  Daniel Pommereulle was an artist friend of Bauchau who was essentially playing himself. He was also a sculptor of strange objects on a break, but instead of going on vacation he made a film. He is of a similar slim body type as Bauchau, but less commanding. He recedes where Bauchau pushes forward.


Haydée was cast after Rohmer met her at a party at his his pal Paul Gégauff’s house. She was working in real estate, and had never acted before. Her inexperience is appropriate for the role, as both actor and character are thrust into a strange situation without much prior experience. Haydée is presented first in the prologue as a visual element, the image of an ingenue with Louise Brooks hair and kewpie doll features. Rohmer breaks her down in a series of close-ups of torso/knees/feet, an objectified image that the film will undermine as she toys with the juvenile games played by Adrien and Daniel. Rohmer would run the three actors through multiple rehearsals before shooting a frame, where they would “invent the text they were going to perform”. The rehearsals were an artistic choice as well as an economic necessity. Not willing to waste a frame of film, Rohmer rarely shot more than one take. His DP Nestor Almendros recalled in his autobiography, A Man With a Camera, that, “We were able to keep the ratio of footage taken to film length at only 1.5:1. A record! We used only 15,000 feet of negative…in the laboratories they thought they were the rushes of a short.”


This was Almendros’ first feature film, and it displays a sumptuously beautiful use of natural light, most of which was due to budget constraints. You can see the gradients in the summer sunlight and textures in the shadows. This use of natural light was both an aesthetic choice and a budgetary necessity. They didn’t have big arc lamps , so usually used whatever light was at hand, pushing the limits of the 35mm film stock. For all its rivers of dialogue, La Collectionneuse is a remarkably tactile feature, of terry cloth robes against the skin, rocks under your feet, a shaft of light entering the room. Like most of Rohmer’s work La Collectionneuse has a piercing lucidity, conveying an understanding of background birdsong as well as the labyrinthine self-delusions of aging artist-lotharios.