Monday, June 4, 2012

Claire's Knee (Éric Rohmer, 1970)

Néstor Almendros' natural-lit cinematography casts the Lake Annecy setting of Claire's Knee in summer tones, warm but not too hot, offset by a breeze that practically infuses the frame. The crystal clear water (rigorously maintained by environmental protections), near the base of the Alps that separate this region from Switzerland, has a breathtaking beauty that Almendros presents as the ultimate escape. Yet the great cinematographer also adds a slight but nagging sense of discomfort to this perpetual sunbath, making the cozy warmth of the frame as stifling and dulling as it is revitalizing. Later in the film, the one character mature enough to see outside the sick interweaving of lust and self-justification that occurs on the banks of the lake has the insight to call the place "smothering."

Jerôme (Jean-Claude Brialy), a diplomat engaged to be married, takes an extended vacation in this area to celebrate his last days of bachelorhood. While boating on the lake, he spots Aurora (Aurora Cornu), an old friend and possibly flame who lives nearby. Catching up, Aurora remarks her surprise that this womanizer would settle down, but Jerôme maintains he's changed. "I don't look at the ladies anymore," he promises, though like the one-woman moralizing of Jean-Louis Trintignant's protagonist in My Night at Maud's, this proclamation has an air of desperation to it, a verbal talisman being waved about to ward off evil temptation. But Aurora, a novelist whose latest, unfinished story involves a fantastical scenario she invented for a Jerôme-like character, needs to him to stray in order to figure out how to finish her story.

Her plan, in keeping with the narrative she wrote up until the incomplete book's end, is to get Jerôme to seduce a young girl and see what happens so she can come up with an ending. Naturally, this deeply complicates the morality in this particular Moral Tale. Where My Night at Maud's brought in male moral superiority in the realm of sex under the microscope, Claire's Knee compounds the self-delusion and vicarious thrill of sexual desire and fealty. Aurora, who admits to wooing some of the younger boys in the area but stopping herself, gets several kinds of secondhand pleasure from steering Jerôme into a dalliance, while Jerôme gets the opportunity to return to his old ways and justify himself by attributing any philandering to a mere acting-out of the part he's been assigned.

On their own, Jerôme and Aurora provide such rich, natural psychology and character that they could propel their own movie. The emptiness of Jerôme's engagement is communicated through the photograph of his fiancée that he carries around. As frozen in a formal pose, the woman looks ridiculously arch, as if Rohmer cut out a film still of a Hitchcock ice queen and passed it off as a portrait. The actual photograph itself is a joke, not an intimate, pocket-sized picture of a loved one but a large, glossy print that looks like the sort of picture kept on a wall. The only way it could ever connote a relationship is by resting in a frame on the cluttered nightstand of an elderly couple for whom marriage has become merely another part of life, not a joyous declaration of love. Aurora, for her part, admits to a desire for so many men that she paradoxically winds up alone and chaste.

But this is not only their movie, and the introduction of the teenage girls only further deepens this twisted sexual tale. Aurora intends to sic Jerôme on Laura, her landlady's daughter and therefore always nearby. Béatrice Romand may not play the titular girl, but she instantly seizes the film from the hands of the adults, and she retains it when Laurence de Monaghan's half-sister entires the picture later. Hers is such a miraculous performance that, despite the ensemble nature of the movie and its entangled psychological urges and compulsions,

Romand's Laura is the picture of dissatisfied, directionless but driven adolescence. She's shy and forward at once, clearly smitten by this bearded, middle-aged gentleman and so embarrassed that her mother will say something to embarrass her that she ends up making even bigger scenes trying to head off mild mortification. She's smart, but not in that empty, false way that movie children are precocious, eerily spitting an adult's words out of a child' or teenager's mouth. Her intelligence is flecked by a naïveté she recognizes and wants to correct. She even self-diagnoses her attraction to Jerôme, and older men in general, as a product of lacking a father figure in her life. In the same monologue, Romand displays a stunning maturity, complaining of her mother's advice and admonishments while already seeing ahead to when she will find the wisdom and reason in those statements. She also notes her unhappiness at a time most call the best years of one's life. But that only means she's destined to go on to something better.

Laura is so adult, in fact, that Jerôme cannot truly fall for her. Both Aurora's story and his baser desires require him to seek more malleable flesh, and so he leaves this girl, wiser than anyone else in the movie alone. When I watched My Night at Maud's, I was struck by Rohmer's approach to POV shots. Even when the shot itself was not a literal approximation of what Jean-Louis saw, the frame generally communicated his frame of mind. The same is true of Claire's Knee and Jerôme perspective, particularly in how he views the film's two teenagers. Laura, so mature that Jerôme has no interest in her, appears in long-shot long takes that see her as she is, letting Romand's incredible performance fully blossom. There's a respectful tone to shots of Laura, as if the camera itself were impressed by her. Jerôme, as he tells Aurora later, "forces himself" to kiss Laura to test both her attraction and spark his own (for the sake of the novel, of course), and his own repulsion to the act is registered in the frame.

And then, after this gross kiss and Romand's incredible, self-analyzing monologue, Rohmer cuts to the arrival of Claire. Laura literally walked into frame as her introduction, a drifting pan lolling over to capture her walking home and meeting Jerôme. It's a lethargic, non-sexual entrance, one that forecasts the man's disinterest in her and her own naturalistic character. We meet Claire, on the other hand, in a bikini. Compared to her half-sister, Claire is shown in briefer takes, more subjective glimpses even in Rohmer's naturally longer takes. The camera eye, whether it is literally capturing Jerôme's line of sight or not, always highlighting the titular knee. Jerôme can delude himself all he wants—and he does, at length, around Aurora—but Rohmer gives away his obsession, and the fetishized body part the diplomat thinks will let him get out his lust without committing any sin fills the frame even without full close-ups.

Yet as the camera reflects Jerôme's lust for the girl, the audience is free to see how boring Claire really is. Where Laura, and her new, lanky beau (Fabrice Luchini), are clearly not at their peak, Claire and her six-packed boyfriend Gilles (Gérard Falconetti) look like the prom king and queen. Neither is stupid, but Claire and Gilles don't have that restlessness that can drive the other young pair to bigger and better things. Molly Haskell is quite right in saying that Claire will becoming less interesting as she grows older while Laura will only become even more fascinating, but that sentiment omits how dull she already is.

Haskell also summarizes Rohmer brilliantly when she notes that he doesn't reduce his women to his men's neuroses. What makes Maud's so striking is how Jean-Louis' attempts to reduce Maud and Françoise do not work, how even the frame's subtle alignment to his point of view cannot cast these two real, complex human beings into his simple-minded Madonna/whore complex. The characters in Claire's Knee have even more going on, the philosophical ruminations of Maud's replaced with a full concentration on character. Aurora, who stands above Jerôme, and Laura, who stands outside his sphere, certainly escape the reductive fetishes of Jerôme's pathetically self-justified desire.

But even Claire, who gets the least chance to express herself, is not merely an object to which Jerôme can pin his fetishes. He concocts a disgusting, childish plan that involves telling Claire about Gilles kissing another girl so he can comfortingly pat the knee he loves so dearly, but as the camera zooms in on Claire's face as she receives this news, she manages to wrest control of the camera away from Jerôme, and as he rubs her knee with mock care, a look of thoughtfulness and repulsion on her face gives the first full impression of her own perspective. Jerôme leaves the lake retreat having sickeningly convinced himself of performing a "good deed" in non-sexually getting out his own lust, giving Aurora an end to her story, and, no less importantly, getting Claire away from that awful boy. But as the latter note of satisfaction, and Claire's subsequent, film-closing action, suggest that she, not Jerôme, will move on from this encounter while he'll wretchedly think of it forever.

Rohmer's dialogue continues to be a marvel, but so too does his direction. The aforementioned approach to an extended point-of-view framing is a subjectivity unlike which I have ever seen. Rohmer is also a master of the shot/reverse shot, breaking the setup from its pat rhythms by cutting not based on turn-taking dialogue patterns but mood. He cuts to get reactions, which are subtly, naturally presented rather than stylized for effect, creating an arhythmic shot pattern that nevertheless feels more logical than the stilted design of so many shot/reverse shot scenes. Rohmer also knows when to hold a shot for great effect. When Jerôme continues a camp leader's admonishment of Claire and Gilles for disturbing the local campers, Laura enters and the shot rests on her as she argues back at this guest presuming to tell her half-sister what to do. By remaining on Romand's teasing, confrontational face and leaving Jerôme's comebacks to waft in from off-screen, Rohmer only further emphasizes his weak arguments and his mental inferiority to this vibrant young woman. And I'd be remiss not to mention the wit of the editing, especially as it applies to the intertitles with dates on them; the funniest gag in the film involves Jerôme pretending to slip so he can steady himself on Claire's knee as the shot instantly cuts to the next day.

"Insignificant characters can inspire good stories," Aurora says as she describes making a novel about Jerôme, but the backhanded compliment could describe Rohmer's own approach to storytelling. Fundamentally, the narrative arc consists of the gradual evolution of Jerôme's proud declaration that he is through looking at women to his modified contention that looking is fine, so long as there's no touching, or none of a certain kind of touching. Yet Claire's Knee offers such depth of character and, for all the talking, such a great many things left unsaid, that Rohmer's story is not merely good but magnificent. Gene Hackman might have compared the act of watching a Rohmer film to that of seeing paint dry, but the delicate complexity with which Rohmer implicates, critiques, but does not judge his characters is quickly proving to me to be as compelling in its own way as the most thrilling and conceptual of Godard's work.

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