Monday, January 11, 2010

Criterion # 10: Spine # 347: CLAIRE'S KNEE (Eric Rohmer, 1970)

Today’s news regarding the death of Eric Rohmer signaled the passing of one of cinema’s greatest philosophers. Especially concerning the practice and mores of modern romance, his properly numbered sextology of films, deemed by himself the Six Moral Tales, is not only one of France’s great masterpieces, but in all of filmmaking. No singular work or thematic combination of works by a single director are as astute and pointed on the issue of sex. It seems the least a cinephile can do on the day a great director dies is pull a DVD from their library and watch a master at work.

Claire’s Knee was the only title from his sextology I had not yet seen. After viewing it, and recalling his others, one of many things is certain – Rohmer made some of the most visually stunning films of the 60’s and 70’s. His color films especially, evoke the greatest Technicolor works of Powell & Pressburger and Douglas Sirk, only with real color stock, making the choice and vibrancy of color all the more impressive. Here is an excellent example, one of the film’s opening shots:

As you can see, he also has an excellent eye for landscapes and photographs them in proper proportion to his characters. Here’s another staggering shot:

The vitality of the color in the surroundings offsets Rohmer’s understated narrative aesthetic and characters. His images are utterly beautiful and mesmerizing, yet his characters are inflicted with indecision, unable to definitively decide on the correct path for both their own pleasure and moral adherence.

Jerôme (Jean-Claude Brialy) is away for the summer while his fiancé works in Africa. Charming his way around a nearby lake house, he learns a young girl named Laura (Béatrice Romand) has a crush on him. He finds her harmless, playful and enjoys the time spent discussing love with her. She, however, is more versed in love than he realized and doesn’t quite buy his notion that “basically, love and friendship are the same.” The arrival of Laura’s stepsister Claire (Laurence de Monaghan), however, intimidates him. And challenges the claim to his platonic fried Aurora (Aurora Cornu) midway through the film that, “I’m through running after girls. All of them…young and old.” He first sees her sunbathing in a striking, teal bikini:

Her presence disturbs Jerôme’s in a way he cannot quite comprehend: “She arouses a desire in me that’s real yet has no purpose and is all the stronger because of it.” Like in La Collectionneuse (1967), My Night at Maud’s (1969) and Love in the Afternoon (1972), Rohmer creates a male psyche riddled with complex dilemmas about sexual desire and obligation. Jerôme does not embody chauvinist debauchery, but even-headed masculinity, ready to calmly approach his quandary. The sophistication of Rohmer’s narrative and central character relinquishes any capability for moral transparency – that remains the sole question for his protagonists, simply, but profoundly: what is moral?

Jerôme’s obsession with Claire concerns her knee. In all of his curious, voyeuristic glory, he’s marveled by it while she picks fruit from a tree:

He summarizes it as such: “Every woman has her most vulnerable point. For some, it’s the nape of the neck, the waist, the hands. For Claire…it [is] her knee.” Freudians would call her knee his cathexis and “a caress must be accepted” for Jerôme to conquer his “pure desire, a desire for nothing.” The moral interests in Rohmer’s film are dealt with maturely. Rohmer was a mature filmmaker. Never indulgent, always modest, his ability to capture an everlasting image is rivaled only by his comprehensive and conscientious subject matter. One of cinema’s great poets is lost, but his art lives on and, thus, so does he.

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