Monday, August 23, 2010

Claire's Knee (1970) A Film by Eric Rohmer

If a filmmaker ever created more tranquil evocations of the languid, luxurious pace of summertime than Eric Rohmer, I'm not aware of it. The fifth entry in Rohmer's six Moral Tales, and what is likely his most beloved and best-known work, Claire's Knee, is as formidable an example as any, a peaceful meditation on the inertial state of emotions during the summer, the way that love and desire become sluggish and speculative when divorced from obligation and routine. Organized in chronological order around sleek handwritten title cards reflecting the date, the kind of diary-like jots that one might see in a Bresson film, Claire's Knee concerns the final arrival of a wealthy, bearded 36-year-old diplomat named Jerome (Jean-Claude Brialy) to his idyllic Lake Annecy estate before his impending marriage, where he incidentally runs into his old friend Aurora (Aurora Cornu), an Italian novelist. The two converse jovially and reflect on the state of their lives beside the shimmering lake, and eventually Aurora introduces Jerome to her landlady Madame Walter (Michèle Montel), who has a sprightly, frizzy-haired 16-year-old daughter named Laura (Béatrice Romand). In mildly self-referential manner, Aurora engages Jerome in a playful experiment in which he flirts with Laura and tests his fidelity to his fiancée, a scenario that she hopes will inspire her writing and that also mirrors Rohmer's own method of creation through investigative analysis.

I love the simplicity of the conceit: an ensemble of characters in a beautiful landscape, rarely more than two of them - a male and a female - in a scene at one time, talking in front of gorgeous backdrops. This is Rohmer's bread and butter, the fundamental substance of his work. What the film comes down to is a series of these verbal happenings one after the other, with just the necessary parts excised from individual days. Rohmer cuts to a new title card only seconds after the last line in the script is spoken, yet it never feels like the ultimate finality of a conversation. The result is lucid, elliptical storytelling, cultivating the notion that these days are amorphous and interconnected, that everything remains the same despite the brief repose in between. Extraordinarily, in spite of the linguistic themes that are central the film (Aurora's novelistic aspirations, the profusion of language), Claire's Knee retains an energy that is wholly cinematic. Remove the sound from the film (yes, deceptively its most vital ingredient) and an elemental visual power would remain, a carefully calculated mood piece in which Rohmer's crisp, evocative images convey a story as potently as that of the naturalistic dialogue.

Indeed, Rohmer's distinctive visual prowess is frequently neglected in favor of discussions about the director's startling wit and intelligence, manifested most tellingly - as the critical consensus goes - in the characters, their interactions, and the gentle narratives they inhabit. Claire's Knee is of course typically enthralling in this regard, an exploration of desire, possession, and fidelity so subtly machinated that it's difficult to pinpoint the exact moments the film has its particular effects. When the titular Claire (Laurence de Monaghan) - the half-sister of Laura - enters the narrative 45 minutes into the film, the atomic shift in Jerome's exterior from cool, composed affability to awestruck, boyish lust is almost unnoticeable, and the key image that compels it is offhand and matter-of-fact. It is not until Jerome spells out his infatuation with Claire to Aurora, which is microscopically focused to her knockout knee, that it really registers, and even then it's a tentative half-truth, as Rohmer is always aware of the slight incongruities between a character's internal state and their actions and words. But I'm still influenced to say that the film's real pleasure, its sensual rather than cerebral rewards, are to be found solely in the wondrous pictorial and structural minimalism. Witness, for instance, the democratic delineation of primary colors in the images below, the organic quality of the film itself, the refreshing lack of rococo lighting techniques (courtesy of none other than Nestor Almendros of Days of Heaven acclaim), and most notably the liberating compositions themselves, which effortlessly capture the lazy vibe of summer.


Ceci said...

Thanks for this critic, I truly love Rohmer's work, and Claire's Knee amongst it! I do prefer "My night at Maud's", with the excellent Trintignant, and the discussions about religion in bed! :) Have you seen it? I shall be glad to read your opinion about it...
Have you seen too the Tales of the Four Seasons?

Rohmer's style reminds me in some way of what Linklater did more recently with Before Sunrise/Sunset, same types of film with few people talking about life while wandering about - (Wait! I've found an article that links both:

Well Linklater's films seem more "natural" to me, there can be sometimes a kind of mannerism which can be a bit annoying in Rohmer's film...but anyway, I still love lots of them, and he'll be missing!


Carson Lund said...

Ceci, thanks for commenting. I haven't seen too many Rohmer films, but Claire's Knee is one of my favorites, though My Night at Maud's is definitely up there.

Linklater's Before Sunrise/Sunset series has always been a wonderful ancestor to Rohmer, the kind of films he would make if he were still with us. And you're correct to notice an element of mannerism in Rohmer, though often times it's self-imposed, given the subtle themes of self-referentiality and creative authorship weaving through his work.