Claire's Knee (Le Genou de Claire) [DVD]
Director : Eric Rohmer
Screenplay : Eric Rohmer
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 1970
Stars : Jean-Claude Brialy (Jerome), Aurora Cornu (Aurora), Béatrice Romand (Laura), Laurence de Monaghan (Claire), Michèle Montel (Madame Walter), Gérard Falconetti (Gilles), Fabrice Luchini (Vincent)
“Surely a man getting married in a month is level-headed,” says the woman in Claire’s Knee (Le Genou de Claire) who is about to entrust her 16-year-old daughter to said level-headed man for a long afternoon hike even though the daughter has made it clear that she is in love with him. Such a statement is endemic to Eric Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales,” which are frequently characterized by people who misunderstand (both deliberately and innocently) themselves and those around them. Rohmer’s films are less about action than they are about thought, and as a result his characters spend much of his films discussing what they did and what they’re doing. Sometimes they’re right, but more often than not they fail to comprehend fully why their world is the way it is.
The man who is to be married in a month is Jerome (Jean-Claude Brialy), but he is anything but level-headed. We never see the woman he is about to marry except a single picture that is described by everyone who sees is as “severe.” Jerome is a young man, but not too young (a flash of gray around his temples stands in stark contrast to his otherwise dark hair and beard, suggesting the onset of age threatening the vitality of youth). We get the sense that he is settling down to a “sensible” marriage largely because the time has come. He claims that he is no longer interested in other women, but his actions will suggest otherwise.
During the course of the film, he becomes fascinated with two girls, both of whom are significantly younger than he is. Both are the daughters of Madame Walter (Michèle Montel), although they have different fathers (both of whom are, not incidentally, absent). Jerome meets them through Aurora (Aurora Cornu), an old friend who has become a novelist and wants to use Jerome as a model for one of her characters. Jerome obliges, but he seems to take the task too literally and uses it as an excuse for unseemly behavior. Any time he does something inappropriate, he is able to justify it as part of the literary “experiment.”
The first girl who intrigues Jerome is Laura (Béatrice Romand), Madame Walter’s 16-year-old daughter who looks much, much younger. Laura immediately has a schoolgirl crush on Jerome, which he selfishly indulges as a “favor” to Aurora, who is writing a novel about such a situation. Laura, though, turns out to be more mature than her tousle-headed looks would suggest, and at one point even rebuffs a sexual approach from Jerome, claiming that she only wants physical intimacy with someone whom she loves and will love her back. Her candidness is striking, especially in contrast to Jerome’s self-serving opportunism, a trait that will come to define him throughout the film.
Jerome’s real object of fascination, though, is Madame Walker’s other teenage daughter, Claire (Laurence de Monaghan). Jerome is not particularly interested in her until one day when he sees her picking cherries from a tree while standing on a ladder and becomes obsessed with her knee. For Jerome, the titular joint becomes both a forbidden object of desire and a symbolic stand-in for everything he can’t have. Jerome feels that, if he could just touch her knee, it would somehow satisfy all of his sexual urges, and when he finally engineers a scenario in which this can happen, it has the shocking overtones of a rape, both emotional and physical. It is easily one of the most disturbing sequence in Rohmer’s films, made all the more distressing by Jerome’s later assertion (really a self-serving justification) that his caress constituted “a good deed.”
All of Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales” feature male protagonists who are torn between two or more women, and in all of them these protagonists are characters of questionable virtue. Jerome, along with Adrien of La Collectionneuse (1967), is easily one of the most self-interested, self-deluded, and, in some senses, cruel. Jerome talks endlessly about his impending marriage and how his actions are in the service of Aurora’s new novel, but is all comes across as willful self-delusion at best or self-serving lies at worst. Yet, Jean-Claude Brialy, a deeply accomplished actor since the 1950s, makes the character continually intriguing, if only because he talks with such conviction that it tempts the viewer to believe him.
Claire’s Knee was the second of Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales” to be shot in color by the great Nestor Almendros, who turns every frame into an impressionistic image of luscious natural beauty that underscores the film’s erotic nature. The story’s backdrop is the month of July at the summer community around Lake Annecy on the border of France and Switzerland, which affords many gorgeous vistas of the Alps and endless green grass, the kind of natural grandeur that overwhelms the characters and renders their self-interested pursuits and games of love and infidelity all the more absurd. It is here that we can best see Rohmer as more than just a great writer of witty and literate dialogue, but also as a great director who understands how to seamlessly and meaningfully integrate character and environment.
|Claire’s Knee Criterion Collection DVD|
|Claire’s Knee is available exclusively as part of the Criterion Collection’s six-disc box set “Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales,” which also includes The Bakery Girl of Monceau , Suzanne’s Career, La Collectionneuse, My Night at Maud’s, and Love in the Afternoon. In addition to supplements on each disc, the box set includes a paperback of the original stories by Eric Rohmer, as well as an insert booklet featuring Rohmer’s landmark essay “For a Talking Cinema,” excerpts from cinematographer Nestor Almendros’s autobiography, and new essays by Geoff Andrew, Ginette Vincendeau, Phillip Lopate, Kent Jones, Molly Haskell, and Armond White.|
|Audio||French Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|SRP||$99.95 (box set)|
|Release Date||August 15, 2006|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Criterion’s new DVD of Claire’s Knee is another gorgeous triumph, leaving the previously available Fox/Lorber disc in the dust. The transfer, which was taken from a 35mm interpositive and digitally restored, looks absolutely luminous (like all the other films in the box set, this one is windowboxed). Nestor Almendros’ gorgeous cinematography is well detailed and shimmers with strong, rich, vibrant colors. The original monaural soundtrack, taken from the 35mm magnetic track and digitally restored, sounds fine throughout, with excellent fidelity and no ambient hiss or other aural artifacts.|
|While this DVD doesn’t contain a Rohmer-directed short films like most of the other discs in the box set do, it does include The Curve (1999), a mildly intriguing 16-minute film with definite Rohmer-esque qualities (much of it consists of a conversation between a young aesthete and his new girlfriend about female beauty, objectification, and love). The film, which was shot on rather cheap-looking video, was written and directed by Edwige Shakti, who also plays the young woman and whose only other credit is a very small role in Rohmer’s 2001 film The Lady and the Duke (Rohmer is credited as a technical advisor on The Curve). |
With the exception of the French theatrical trailer, the only other supplement on this disc is a 9-minute excerpt from a 1970 episode of the French television program Le journal du cinéma featuring interviews with Jean-Claude Brialy, Béatrice Romand, and Laurence de Monahagan. They say almost nothing about the film itself because they are busy discussing Rohmer (it is particularly interesting to see Béatrice Romand and Laurence de Monahagan arguing about Rohmer’s nature--whether he’s “simple” or “complicated”). Rohmer, of course, does not appear on the program because at that time he refused to be filmed (the show’s host refers to him as “quite unsociable”).
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © The Criterion Collection