Any writing I produce on the films of Éric Rohmer is bound to remain a work in progress: nine films into his oeuvre and I still find myself confused as to whether I feel on the whole more attracted to or repelled by his style, and which elements therein are responsible for which reactions. 1970’s Claire’s Knee, the fifth of his “Six Moral Tales,” all of which are now playing in new restorations at the Film Society at Lincoln Center, clearly represents some sort of career peak. In this film, Rohmer’s elegant and sensitive formal strategies are given as free rein as the more off-putting bursts of dialogue and characterization for which he is known.
“Off-putting” is wholly my adjective, and represents a disposition I haven’t yet relinquished in my journey through Rohmer’s body of work. Yet it’s easy to imagine large swathes of modern audiences turned off by the basic plot of Claire’s Knee, adapted from a short story Rohmer had written two decades earlier. At film’s open, Jérôme (Jean-Claude Brialy) serendipitously runs into his author friend Aurora (Aurora Cornu) while vacationing on the palatial Lake Annecy near the France-Switzerland border. Aurora introduces Jérôme to her landlady, Madame Walter, and that landlady’s two young daughters: the bushy-haired Laura (an unforgettable Béatrice Romand) and her older step-sister Claire (Laurence de Monaghan). Jérôme is about to be married, but with some egging on from Aurora finds it in him to engage in various forms of courtship first with Laura, then with Claire. As is Rohmer’s wont, these dalliances are collocated with lengthy bouts of self-explanation from Jérôme, none of which appear wholly satisfactory to their goal of reconciling his established moral schema with his actions. When he finally contrives that he must caress Claire’s knee in order to exercise control over and her and his own desires, the aberrant energies of Rohmer’s narrative practices are fully engaged. Of all the Moral Tales, Claire’s Knee constructs the biggest barrier to absorption based on the provocation of its story content.
We might then point to a number of pleasing elements typical of Rohmer which surface as immediately as does that foul stench, and which also function at a career peak in this very film. First off is the absolutely impeccable work of establishing the setting by the director and prized cinematographer Néstor Almendros. Their penchant for natural lighting ensures that each landscape within the film’s Lake Annecy setting is impressed with a lightly enigmatic familiarity. Rohmer also demonstrates his eye for tiny expressive visual details which inflect the frame with an uncanny energy—my favorite being the Gauguin poster which adorns the wall of Laura’s bedroom.
Nor did Rohmer ever have a better sense of rhythm, how the structuring of individual scenes and their juxtaposition could carry the viewer with or against the flow of story events. In Claire’s Knee, Rohmer divides scenes with handwritten intertitles (“LUNDI 29 JUIN,” e.g.) which signal the day during which the following scene takes place. This tool is repeatedly used at surprising junctures in the narrative: sometimes to effect a detachment from the material, sometimes for humor, all the while casually inverting the mood of the scene prior.
This approach to arranging the narrative on a large scale harmonizes with Rohmer’s simple yet groundbreaking method of editing his scenes of lengthy dialogue, in which the gaze of the camera remains independent of the flow of conversation, foregoing the impulse to cut to the interlocutors as they speak their respective minds. Both of these tendencies, as well as Rohmer’s active eye for the minute details of his films’ environments, communicate to the viewers a sort of built-in distance from the goings-on of the film’s narrative, the alternating action and speech of its characters. As Max Nelson once quipped on Rohmer’s films, “things, we are led to believe, could always have been otherwise.” The stories these characters tell about themselves—at infamous length, in Rohmer’s movies—are often set into relief, modified, or ironized through his insistence on the irreducible minutia of his natural environments and his dogged refusal to let the drama of the dialogue shape the structure of the film after it has been edited.
Yet a film like Claire’s Knee is not merely a circus of irony, a spectacle of negative energy: clearly one must take some sort of base enjoyment in the lengthy, digressive musings of Rohmer’s characters that is not reducible to scoffing at their myopia. This is where I start to run into trouble as a viewer, as Rohmer’s dialogues in the Six Moral Tales often slide into disconsolate writtenness, and I simply can’t get inside the pointedly artificial flow of these characters’ stacked anecdotes and dictums. Whatever “distance” is thereby effected feels here unshapely and intrusive—especially in the face of such later masterworks as The Aviator’s Wife and The Green Ray, where the dialogue spills out much more realistically without sacrificing wit or sophistication.
Nevertheless, it is possible to detect the complexity of Rohmer’s overall project even if one doesn’t jell with his writing style. Rather than the victory of a formally “implicit” worldview established by the director over the farcical ones espoused by his characters, one can consider the environment of the Moral Tales as dialectically energized by both terms. This brings me back to the off-putting aspect of Claire’s Knee—it’s not always morally invigorating to watch Jérôme test his wits and romantic finesse on these two girls without explicit pushback from the fictional world he occupies. Just as Rohmer doesn’t only document those elements of the world which harmonize with his characters’ conceptions, so too doesn’t he marshal his sensitive eye merely to illustrate their follies, which balance pushes the basic narrative substance of Claire’s Knee into emotionally unstable territory. Jérôme’s worldview, which appears wholly delusional and grotesque to this viewer, becomes frankly tiring as an engine of meaning in the story’s world. Yet this trade-off seems worth it, for the fruits of Rohmer’s cinematic practice are rare indeed. In the films of Rohmer one glimpses, if only briefly, a world shimmering outside the limits of narrative, of speech and even action: a world that abides while we set out rules for it, only to slip gently from our grasp forevermore.
Éric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales play in new restorations at the Film Society at Lincoln Center through September 29th.