Rohmerathon: Claire’s Knee, by Scott Nye
So far in this series, I’ve yet to touch on the importance of career in Rohmer’s films, but then it’s only the sort of thing that starts to make sense in retrospect. His protagonists in Bakery Girl and Suzanne’s Career were students (of law and pharmacy, respectively), and behave in turn with a lack of mastery over their domains. La Collectionneuse’s Adrien is an optometrist, positing himself to his intended sexual conquest in physical and aesthetic turns (which also ties into his hobby, and potential future profession, as an art dealer). The unnamed protagonist of My Night at Maud’s is an engineer attempting to mathematically arrange the ideal life for himself. In Claire’s Knee, Jerôme (Jean-Claude Brialy) is a diplomat. And he will very much take a diplomat’s approach to love over the course of the film, distancing himself from its emotional turmoil and proceeding cautiously towards any suggestion of impropriety.
Jerôme’s false congeniality in the face of his almost smug disinterest in actual engagement has long kept me from really embracing Claire’s Knee, widely felt to be among Rohmer’s finest films. Clinical detachment from others is an important component to any Rohmer film, but any rewards that yields them also nets a bitter side effect. The boy gets his dream girl in Bakery Girl and My Night at Maud’s, but not without leaving some turmoil in his wake. The boy “wins,” too, in Suzanne’s Career, but his resentment towards others comes back around to hurt him most. Adrien the collector is left incapable of contentment. Jerôme, on the other hand, enters the film on a speedboat in paradise, big ol’ smile on his face, and exits in the same manner. The small denouement we get in his absence suggests only that the lives of others will carry on just fine without him, or were only barely affected by his presence in the first place.
Jerôme is taking one final personal holiday at Lake Annecy in eastern France (Rohmer’s taste in locations remains, as ever, superb) before he is to marry the unseen Lucinde. There he runs into Aurora (Aurora Cornu), an old friend and novelist, who in turn introduces him to her host and landlady, Madame Walter (Michèle Montel), and Madame Walter’s teenage daughter Laura (Béatrice Romand), with whom Jerôme quickly develops a friendly, somewhat uncomfortable bond. Men tend to overestimate their appeal to women who attract them, and disregard the effect they have on women who do not. A successful, worldly, attractive man like Jerôme holds a good deal of appeal for the restless, awkward Laura, whose affection Jerôme is happy to wave away as childish infatuation without recognizing how much she is consumed by it. So what he puts out as a playful bit of affection – an attempted kiss at a picnic – registers as something between a proposal and an assault to her.
Things only get more complicated with the arrival of Laura’s attractive older half-sister, Claire (Laurence de Monaghan). The relationship is evident even before this moment, with Laura resenting Claire’s beauty and the latter unable to quite process why Laura is having such a hard time of adolescence when it’s been mostly a dream for her. Claire is presently involved with a handsome, if disrespectful, young man named Gilles (Gérard Falconetti). Her adoration of him is notably distinct from the feelings Laura has for Jerôme (or for Vincent [Fabrice Luchini], a boy her age who is more annoying that alluring) in its depth. Unlike Laura, she has no reason to be hesitant with her affections; like most beautiful girls who know how beautiful they are, she assumes her feelings will always be matched. It’s worked out pretty well so far, anyway.
Jerôme is fairly obvious in his lustful stares; what other men in his position might hide in suggestive teasing, he lays plain with more overt gestures and dialogue, forever at her service for favors she never requests. Yet, he insists to Aurora, he would be completely content only to touch her knee. Now, there’s something plenty creepy in this all on its own, Claire being all of eighteen and her knee being a very specific fixation and so forth. It certainly cements the way Jerôme so elaborately compartmentalizes his romantic and sexual interests. Unlike the past films in the Moral Tales series, Jerôme is tempted to stray from his intended love not by one woman but by at least two (Claire and Laura), and a third if you count Aurora, with whom he has a slightly-more-than-friendly rapport. This fits his position, as diplomat, to juggle the interests of many parties, and the way he tentatively pursues each is the very definition of the word as it’s used socially. He makes his desires known through suggestion, letting the other party finish his sentence, giving the impression that they came up with the idea all on their own. Claire’s knee is an attainable goal, one for which he doesn’t have to fully humiliate himself should she reject him. It’s a compromise to his true desire (he claims he doesn’t actually want to sleep with her, but I’m not sure we can believe him), but his position in life is structured around compromise.
Claire’s Knee is the only film in the Moral Tales series that features absolutely no voiceover narration, further divesting us of direct insight into Jerôme. Narration in Rohmer is complicated under the most direct of circumstances. In his earliest work, it was a way to get around recording direct sound. As he gained more technological access, he gradually lessened his reliance on it, but it became a valuable way to learn the characters apart from how they present themselves to others. That’s not to say they were always totally honest with the audience; the voiceover, rather, is how they present themselves to themselves. We learn the lies they repeat to assert their righteousness, their obsessions, and the few brutal truths they can’t quite share with others. Rohmer gets around this a bit by having Jerôme use Aurora as a sounding board, and it’s not as though Rohmer ultimately needs it to make a great film – the one late film of his I’ve seen, A Summer Tale, has none and is a masterpiece – and I’ll be interested to see how he breaks free of it in the coming films, but at this point in his career, still telling stories distinctly from the point of view of his protagonists, it makes a distanced character even more difficult to orient oneself around. It’s not that we have to like Jerôme or get all up in arms about whether Rohmer does. But if Jerôme’s perspective guides the story, it’s useful to know the context in which that perspective is grounded, a background Rohmer gracefully explores in the other Moral Tales films. Rohmer wrote the initial story for this film when he was twenty-four. “As a result,” he said in a 1982 interview, “it isn’t a biographical story in any way. At that moment, I confess I had wanted to imagine a character that I might have known, a person about forty years old.” Jerôme remains something of a cipher, an imagined type, rather than a fully-realized person.