Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Eric Rohmer's fifth in his series of moral tales presents another short-story examination of sexual politics from the point of view of yet another self-deceiving male protagonist. Rohmer's subtle method is dialogue driven and thus may be the perfect example of the kind of foreign film that Americans hate: Too many subtitles to read. But if one can overcome that obstacle, Claire's Knee is a sophisticated film about a Frenchman foolishly convinced of his own sophistication.
Rohmer's direction, aided by the fine camerawork of Néstor Almendros, no longer has the rough quality of his earlier films, but we still marvel at his perfect casting and careful handling of delicate scenes. Rohmer may call these moral tales, but he aims for truths more insightful than those found in conventional morality.
Diplomat Jerome Montcharvin (Jean-Claude Brialy) spends his summer in the French Alps with an old friend and author, Aurora (Aurora Cornu). He becomes interested in two vacationing half sisters, about whom he and Aurora engage in philosophical discussions. Already engaged, Jerome nevertheless amuses himself by flirting with Laura (Béatrice Romand), a sixteen year-old who develops a crush on him. But he becomes fascinated by Laura's half sister Claire (Laurence de Monaghan), a blonde beauty with a local boyfriend. Jerome is convinced that Claire's lack of recognition of his presence is a veiled challenge.
As is usual in the moral tales, little may actually happen but the lead character is constantly dealing with ideas and scenarios of imagined sexual conquest. The bearded, handsome Jerome is absorbed with his self image and proclaims his higher morals at every turn: He's engaged to the perfect woman and his toying with the affections of a pair of well-off teenagers is merely an experiment in benevolent self-control. His novelist friend Aurora practically encourages him to seduce the young Laura to provide grist for her next book; although Jerome would deny it, Aurora's encouragement comes as a stroke to his ego. Jerome embarks on a dangerous game, flirting with Laura knowing he can always back off in the interest of propriety and decency. To Jerome's surprise, the virginal Laura is no dummy and soon realizes that he's not serious.
Eric Rohmer relates his tale with a swift succession of dialogue moments and encounters separated by pages in a diary. Scenes end abruptly, often picking up the next day where the characters left off. It's a literary format that might raise objections among cinematic purists, but Rohmer has the last laugh -- his characters are so well cast that we're tempted to think that he built his story around them. For all of his polite and articulate rationalizations of his actions and motives, Jerome comes off as a poseur, playing his game from the position of an aloof outsider. Laura is far more honest in her actions and responses. Given the right circumstances, she could become Jerome's lover, and has no need of the diplomat's constant self-justifications. Laura even has a healthy bickering relationship with her mother (Michèle Montel), respecting the woman's point of view even as they disagree.
Jerome's hypocrisy is exposed when he develops an infantile crush on Claire. Already professing disinterest in women as sex objects and devoted to the notion that he's chosen an 'appropriate' mate away from the uncertainties of physical attraction, Jerome becomes obsessed with Claire because she doesn't automatically respond to his presence or acknowledge his attractiveness. Claire has her own boyfriend Gilles (Gérard Falconetti), a local fellow that Jerome instantly decides isn't good enough for her. We initially perceive Claire as Jerome does, as a pretty but vacuous young thing less accessible to him than the flirtatious Laura. Once again meddling where he isn't needed, Jerome interferes in Claire's love life for what he considers altruistic reasons, and brings her to tears with a revelation about Gilles. "Consoling" Claire by caressing her knee, Jerome satisfies his need for a (symbolic) physical conquest while congratulating himself with further delusions about his motivation: He imagines himself as a mature male, generously helping a young girl with understanding and kindness.
Rohmer demonstrates that Jerome labors under the same doltish egotism that affects the younger men in his earlier moral tales. We hope that a young offender like Bertrand of Suzanne's Career will learn from his folly, but the much older Jerome has used his high-toned sophistry to turn himself into an abusive character. The author Aurora comes off as a cynical manipulator, so only the two half-sisters retain our sympathy. Laura can obviously take care of herself, but what of the defenseless Claire? Hers is the kind of beauty that will intimidate future Jeromes, provoking their cruel games of vanity.
Criterion's impeccable DVD of Claire's Knee far outclasses earlier video releases; Néstor Almendros' soft colors capture the dreamy Alpine locations and the privileged characters at play. The transfer is kept at 1:33 flat, by the choice of director Rohmer. Extras include The Curve, a 1999 short film Rohmer directed with Edwige Shakti, the film's trailer, and an amusing excerpt from a French television program in which actresses Béatrice Romand and Laurence de Monaghan debate whether Rohmer is a complicated or simple person.
Claire's Knee is part of Criterion's Six Moral Tales by Eric Rohmer collection and is not available separately. The packaging and transfer sport a new Criterion Logo, a bold "C" that will take some getting used to.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Claire's Knee rates:
Supplements: Short film The Curve by Eric Rohmer and Edwige Shakti; French television program excerpt, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 5, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson