by Robert Garrick on Sep 11, 2020

Golden Anniversaries: Films of 1970 is an online Cinema St. Louis event examining 14 films that are celebrating their 50th anniversary. Every Monday at 7:30 p.m. from Aug. 10-Oct. 26, CSL is hosting a livestream discussion of a film that originally premiered in 1970.

A discussion of Éric Rohmer's feature Claire's Knee will take place Monday, Sept. 14, at 7:30 p.m. Robert Garrick — attorney, board member of the French-heritage organization Les Amis, and former contributor to the film blog — will provide introductory remarks and lead the discussion, facilitated by CSL executive director Cliff Froehlich.

Claire's Knee: Boogie Days

By Robert Garrick

1970 / France / 105 min. / Dir. by Éric Rohmer / Opened in select U.S. cities on Feb. 21, 1971

The first thing you notice about Claire’s Knee is that it’s in color.

Claire’s Knee, from French New Wave writer and director Éric Rohmer, was released in France in December 1970, the fifth of his six “moral tales.” It came on the heels of Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s, which was the art-house hit of 1969. Maud’s was filmed in black-and-white, mostly indoors, mostly at night, in the winter, and it was set in the relatively dreary French provinces. The Catholic Church was a major presence. Maud’s is a sexy film, but it’s also a sermon, a stern lesson.

Rohmer chose a different approach for Claire’s Knee. There are bright, birthday-cake colors, and the setting is gorgeous, spectacular. We are obviously in some very special place, possibly a vacation spot. There’s a lake; there are mountains; there are flowers. In the film’s opening scenes, a man in a small boat toodles down the lake, and swans gently give way. Rohmer has said that Maud’s had to be in black-and-white. But Claire’s Knee, to Rohmer, was unimaginable in black-and-white, and he told his great cameraman, Nestor Almendros, to go for a “Paul Gaugin look” — lots of sunny blues and greens, with dashes of red. Rohmer also wanted the film to be shown full frame (not widescreen) in order to show the mountains.

Because the film is one of Rohmer’s moral tales, we know that there will be a central male figure, a first-person “narrator,” and that he will be torn between two women. He will love one woman, be tempted by another, and in the end he will return to the first one. That’s not a spoiler; it’s the model for all six moral tales, and it comes from F.W. Murnau's Sunrise (1927), a film that Rohmer, a major film critic and scholar as well as a director, admired.

Rohmer somehow managed to follow the huge success of My Night at Maud’s with another film that was just as successful, just as much of an art-house sensation. Claire’s Knee received the Louis Delluc Prize for Best French Film of the year; it won Best Film at the San Sebastian International Film Festival; and it was the Best Film winner from the French Syndicate of Cinema Critics. In America, it was the Best Foreign Language Film winner at the National Board of Review, and it won the overall Best Film award from the National Society of Film Critics. The dean of American film critics, Andrew Sarris, put Claire’s Knee at the top of his 10-best list for 1971. Vincent Canby, the lead critic at the New York Times, said that Claire’s Knee was “something close to a perfect film.” In the most recent Sight & Sound poll of world critics, Molly Haskell voted Claire’s Knee one of the 10 best films ever made.

The male “narrator” of Claire’s Knee is Jerome (Jean-Claude Brialy), an embassy attaché based in Stockholm. He’s the man in the boat in the film’s opening scenes, and the stunning scenery is Lake Annecy, at the base of the French Alps, near the Swiss border. Jerome has come to sell the family property, where he spent a great deal of time as a young man. The spot is full of memories.

As Jerome comes toward the camera in his boat, we see a woman overhead, on a bridge. It’s Aurora, a writer, played by the real-life novelist Aurora Cornu. Jerome is delighted to see her, and she seems delighted to see him. Jerome and Aurora have a past, almost certainly a romantic past, in Bucharest. As they talk, there’s much physical contact.

Aurora is vacationing for the summer not far from Jerome’s old place. She’s rented a room from a woman with two teenage daughters.

In a Rohmer film, the “action” comes largely through dialogue. There’s almost no music, almost no physical activity. There are no showy camera angles. Rohmer’s films demand an intelligent, alert viewer. Is the camera on the speaker or on the person being spoken to? Where is the conversation taking place? What is the weather like?

Right at the start of Claire’s Knee, Jerome announces to Aurora that “I don't look at the ladies anymore. I’m getting married.”

They enter Jerome’s childhood home, the one that he’s going to pack up and sell. There are frescoes of Don Quixote on the wall. Don Quixote is blindfolded; he thinks he's flying but actually he’s sitting on a horse. Aurora says: “The heroes of a story are always blindfolded. Actually, everyone wears a blindfold. Or at least blinders.”

Jerome tells Aurora that he’s known his fiancée for six years. Aurora says, “I didn’t think you were capable of being faithful for six years.” Jerome says there have been many affairs and breakups, but “I’m marrying her because experience has shown I can live with her.”

He goes on: “When something pleases me, I do it for pleasure. Why tie myself down with one woman if others still interest me?” But, Jerome says, “I’ve come to realize that all other women leave me cold. They’re all the same.”

Aurora says that her love life is going nowhere and that she’s enjoying doing nothing, waiting. All the while, she and Jerome are touching, grabbing, flirting.

Critic Colin Crisp says that Jerome “is faced with a cinematic harem” in Claire’s Knee, and the three women in the harem couldn’t be more distinct: Aurora, Laura, and Claire.

Aurora introduces Jerome to her hostess, Mrs. Walter, whose biological daughter is Laura and whose stepdaughter is Claire. Laura is 16 years old and still in high school. She’s kittenish, natural, nervous, possibly smitten with Jerome. She looks young, even younger than 16. She could be Jerome’s daughter. But there’s sexual tension, right from the first shots.

Claire is away. She will arrive later.

Laura is Mrs. Walter’s daughter by her first husband. That husband died, after which Mrs. Walter married Claire’s father. They later divorced. So Laura is without a father, and Mrs. Walter is without a husband.

Aurora wants to stir things up. She has writer’s block, and she’s looking for ideas. “Laura is in love with you,” she tells Jerome. “I'm sure you’ve noticed how she looks at you.”

Aurora wants Jerome to play along. Jerome resists a bit, but Aurora goads him on: “You’re afraid! She’s just a sweet little flirt. She’ll pull back at the last minute.”

Jerome says: “I can’t resist being your guinea pig.” Jerome pretends to be slightly annoyed, but he’s also intrigued. He’s doing it as a favor to Aurora — or so he tells himself.

Early on, Jerome tries to tell Laura that he’s engaged to be married. But Aurora is there, and she interrupts. Aurora wants Laura to think that Jerome is available.

Jerome tells Laura anyway, the next day, in front of everyone. Laura is shocked but deals with it. A little later, Jerome sees Laura in her bikini (the skimpiest of skimpy bikinis) and invites her to his house, the one he’s packing up to sell.

Laura looks at a picture of Jerome’s fiancée. “She looks a little cold. I pictured you with someone less hard.”

Jerome responds: “Lucinde (his fiancée) isn’t my type physically. Though I really don’t have a type. Looks don’t matter to me. All women are equal. It’s the character that counts.”

Jerome says that he gets along with Lucinde, and that's enough. He says that love and friendship are the same. He expects to have “freedom” in his marriage. He doesn’t want his marriage to be “possessive.”

Laura disagrees: “I’m never friends with someone I love. Love makes me mean. For me, friendship comes later. When I’m in love, it occupies me totally, and I forget that I’m happy to be alive.”

Again, in a Rohmer film, dialogue is a substitute for action.

Laura’s next move is to invite Jerome on a “date” — a three-hour hike to the best spot in the nearby mountains, and then maybe an overnight at the mountain inn. Laura does this in front of her mother and her mother’s new gentleman friend.

Laura’s mother says: “Laura, you’re going too far.” Laura responds: “Really, mother? You don’t want the two of us sleeping at the inn?”

It should be — and it is — a shocking scene, but Rohmer underplays it. There’s a great deal of coyness and looking around. Nobody wants to make a scene. Laura gets up and says: “It’s settled then. Come by for me tomorrow.” She gives Jerome a kiss and heads for her room.

Laura’s mother lets it go, but she’s concerned. “She’s in love with you. It’s a dangerous game.” Jerome assures Mrs. Walter that Laura is just playing.

It’s the next day. Jerome and Laura are in a central spot in the mountains. Laura continues to push: “Wouldn’t you rather be with your fiancée?”

Jerome: “Well, sure.”

Laura is mildly annoyed. “I’m taking a calculated risk. You’re taking a bigger risk than I am. You’re practically a married man. I’m a free woman.”

Jerome: “But I’m free, too. I respect Lucinde’s freedom, and she respects mine.”

Laura: “Would she be pleased to know you’re with me?”

Jerome: “She knows my feelings are purely platonic.”

Now Laura is more annoyed. Jerome tries to give her a kiss, and Laura pushes him away. She says: “I’d like to be in love for real, with a boy who loves me and whom I love.”

The scene has an edge, for sure. There’s a tremendous age difference, and Jerome is engaged to be married. Probably Jerome shouldn’t be up there with Laura. But Aurora orchestrated the entanglement between Laura and Jerome, and used some deceptions to allow it to blossom. Laura asked Jerome on the date, in front of her mother, who did nothing to stop it. As for Jerome, he doesn’t let things go too far. There is no evening at the mountain inn. Jerome is not smitten with Laura. He’s merely along for the ride. He’s helping his friend Aurora, he tells himself. And as a male, he’s having a good time.

Still on the mountain, Laura confesses to Jerome that she likes older men. She doesn’t feel safe with young boys. She wants someone old enough to be her father. “In an older man, it’s like I’ve found my father again.”

Not long after this, Jerome gets his first look at Claire, who is newly arrived. She’s in a bikini by the side of the lake, alone. They chat briefly, and then Claire’s boyfriend, Gilles, drives up, and Claire goes off with him.

Gilles asks: “Who’s that guy?” Claire responds: “Some friend of our lodger.” To Gilles and Claire, Jerome is nothing.

Claire and Laura are quite different. Laura is dark and short; Claire is a willowy blonde. Laura tends to intellectualize, like a character in a Woody Allen film. Claire doesn’t speak much. When she’s addressed, she replies directly.

Jerome was amused by Laura. Perhaps he was flattered by her attention, and Aurora egged him on. To Jerome, it was never serious, and he never worried that he was behaving inappropriately. After all, he was “free” (as he is happy to announce ad nauseam) and even after getting married, he’d continue to be “free.” So everything’s cool. All women are the same. What’s the big deal?

Enter Claire. Jerome gets his first good look at Claire’s knee while she’s on a ladder, picking fruit off a tree. She’s above, and he’s below. He’s darn close to looking up her dress. Nothing is said, but just after he sees the knee, Laura (who seems to know everything, somehow) hands him a basket of fruit.

On Bastille Day (July 14), there’s a dance. Claire, by now, has gotten under Jerome’s skin. Claire declines a dance with Jerome, saying that she’s tired. It’s all quite subtle, but Jerome seems to be increasingly bothered, distracted, even angry. He says nothing.

Later he downloads to Aurora. He reminds her that “he’s just passing through” and that “his life is elsewhere.” “I’m through running after girls,” he says, “all of them.”

But then he tells Aurora that he’s writing his own story now and that it doesn’t involve Laura. Aurora guesses: “Claire!”

Now Jerome speaks frankly, as he often does to Aurora. He says Claire “disturbs my character, and me, too, to some extent.”

Jerome is aggressive. There’s a hint of rage. He continues: “Even though I don’t want her, I feel that I have a claim on her. A claim born from the very strength of my desire. The turmoil she arouses in me gives me a sort of right over her. You see, I'm convinced I deserve her more than anyone.”

This is the logic of a rapist, even of a Ted Bundy-style serial killer. Jerome is neither — he has enough self-control to avoid violence. But it’s the same impulse, and it’s Claire's body (Aurora says it) that is making him crazy.

Aurora asks: “Why don't you marry Claire? She will age well.”

Jerome: “Looks aren’t all that important to me. I told you, if she came to me, I’d turn her down. But I’d like to turn her down of my own choice.”

He tells Aurora about Claire’s knee. Claire’s annoying boyfriend, Gilles (whom Jerome sees as a rival), had his hand on her knee, and it bugged him. He wants to claim that knee.

Jerome thinks he sees Gilles flirting and kissing another girl, one who was at an earlier volleyball game with Claire. He picks up Claire in his boat, giving her a ride to another town. It starts to rain. They seek shelter.

This is the famous scene where Jerome contrives to touch Claire’s knee. With the gray skies and rain, it’s the only scene in the film that carries a hint of gloom. Jerome tells Claire that Gilles isn’t worthy, that he was with another girl. He makes Claire cry. Then he “comforts” her by putting his hand on her knee, for what seems like an eternity. The rain pours down.

It’s a pathetic, disturbing scene. Jerome is sublimating his own erotic distress, nothing more, and he’s doing it at the expense of an 18-year-old girl whom he barely knows. After the scene is over, we see the lake. It’s roiling, gray, frightening.

Now Jerome is back with Aurora, providing play-by-play. She’s fascinated, of course. Ideas for a novel, you know.

Jerome: “You know I hate making girls cry. But she needed a lesson. It was my good deed for the day. I’m no longer obsessed with the girl’s body. It’s as if I had her. I’m fulfilled. I got her away from that boy for good. She’s learned a lesson. She’ll be more careful.”

A little more time passes. Jerome has closed his boyhood home, and now it’s time to leave Lake Annecy.

He says goodbye to Aurora. He has nothing to say to Claire (who’s supposed to be sleeping in the house). Laura departed several days ago.

Jerome goes off in his little boat, this time heading away from the camera.

He’s gone. Just then Gilles pulls up in a car. Claire emerges from the house. Aurora watches from above — a bookend to her appearance on the bridge at the film’s opening, and an appropriate place for a puppet master.

In a few sentences, Gilles explains what happened with the other girl. Claire says it was bad judgment but, beyond that, she doesn't care. She’s over it in about 10 seconds. Claire and Gilles are seated together, under a tree, by the side of the lake, embracing. The last words of the film, from Gilles: “Come, sit on my lap.”

By now Jerome is far away, headed back to Lucinde in Sweden and to a life of freedom and pleasure.

Most critics, writing about Claire’s Knee, can’t help but make it All About Jerome. Colin Crisp, who is one of the sharpest observers of Rohmer’s work, writes:

The trend of the film is to marginalize and progressively isolate an individual (Jerome) who is accustomed to effortless success. The innumerable women by whom he is initially surrounded turn out to be otherwise engaged. Mrs. W. is to be married, as is Aurora, and Laura disengages in a way that disconcerts him. Claire’s stolid indifference is only the most evident instance of this unwanted female recalcitrance which is most clearly evidenced on the night of the dance.

That’s all true. And to be sure, Jerome is a juicy target. He quite inappropriately gets involved with the child Laura. He uses Aurora as an excuse for that. Then he inserts himself into Claire’s lightweight teenage romance with Gilles. He tells Aurora he did a good deed by breaking them up. But it was never a good deed, nor did he break them up, nor was it any of his business. Jerome was dealing with his physical attraction to Claire, and he needed an excuse to physically “possess” her, if only in a small way.

Jerome is Rohmer’s first-person “narrator,” the one through whom the “moral” of the tale must flow. He is the film's focus. But if you think that Claire’s Knee is primarily a case study of Jerome and that he's uniquely misguided, ask yourself this: Which characters, if any, speak for Rohmer in Claire’s Knee? Which ones are moral exemplars? Which ones are not self-deceived? Which ones have empathy? Which ones are truly loving?

Many critics would say: Laura. The tendency of the critics has been to rhapsodize over her. Andrew Sarris writes of her “exquisite soul” and says that she is “heartstopping in the harshness of her emotional intelligence.”

The same observers are usually dismissive of Claire. Dennis Grunes (like Crisp and Sarris, a great critic) writes that Claire is “the epitome of promising adolescence on the verge of dull womanhood.”

Aurora is mostly treated with amusement. Yes, she’s up to no good. But she’s an ancillary character. She can prod Jerome, but he’s the one who has to act. Aurora is seen as an observer, not as a major player.

All of which is to rather miss the point. If Claire’s Knee were a case study of a troubled man, it would still be an interesting film, for sure. But troubled men are a dime a dozen.

Let’s take a closer look at the supporting characters in Claire’s Knee.

Laura, the critical favorite, is looking to replace her lost father — as she acknowledges and as her friend Vincent understands, along with probably everyone else in her life. She brazenly flirts with a man who’s old enough to be that father and conspires to break up his engagement. She “falls in love” with him on first glance — mostly because he’s bigger and older. She likes to sit at the base of the mountains because (she says) that allows them to tower over her and she feels protected. She pouts and picks fights when things don’t go her way. Laura is a child, only 16 years old, and she will grow up. But partly, that’s the point. A 16-year-old shouldn't be talking endlessly about marriage.

Aurora is Rohmer’s “devil” figure in Claire’s Knee, like Vidal in My Night at Maud’s. She’s the film’s provocateur. She’s charming, but she's a disrupter, not above tempting people into doing bad things. She encouraged Jerome to indulge Laura’s crush, and wouldn’t let him tell her that he was engaged to be married. She wanted to prolong Laura’s delusion; she wanted Laura’s “love” to deepen. That would make for a better story! Later, she suggested that perhaps Jerome could marry Claire. She said that she enjoyed “isolation,” but she became engaged during the course of the film to a minor character.

Mrs. Walter also becomes engaged to an apparently ordinary guy, after losing one husband (to death) and another (to divorce). She listened to her 16-year-old daughter ask an engaged man out on an openly sexual date. She put up a minor protest but did nothing to stop it.

Claire and Gilles are young and want to have regular intercourse. They’re probably not committed and devoted in any kind of a serious way; it’s a teenage romance. Nevertheless, they are the most sensible, least intellectually dishonest characters in the film. And unlike the others, they don’t use other people in a potentially harmful way. They just want each other.

In an interview, Rohmer said: “Ultimately everyone in this film is simply wrong, about some basic fact.” Aurora, after seeing the Don Quixote fresco, said that “the heroes of a story are always blindfolded.”

Every scene in the film involves romantic attraction, and yet none of the characters seem to be capable of offering real love, or of offering anything, really. They’re simply looking to fill needs. Rohmer allows us to observe his characters in this colorful, beautiful place, and it’s not a pretty picture. There’s no love. There’s not even attractive flirting. There’s desperation. They’re all in the dark.

It’s been said that Rohmer made his six moral tales in response to the sexual revolution of the ’60s. From the distance of 50 years, it's difficult to remember just how quickly things were changing in the years leading up to 1970, when Claire’s Knee was released. Just a few years before, films like Peyton Place and A Summer Place held up extramarital sex and pregnancies as shocking, life-destroying events. But by 1970 we were in a world of “love-ins,” of casual premarital sex thanks to the Pill, of wife swapping between major-league baseball players, and of “key parties.” (Or so the legend goes. Suburban “key parties” were the basis of Ang Lee’s harshly moral 1997 film The Ice Storm.)

By 1970, the new Motion Picture Association of America film “ratings,” first introduced in 1968, had taken hold. The ratings paved the way, almost overnight, to explicit sex and full nudity in mainstream motion pictures.

Finally, there was porn. Pornography had been around forever, but by the early ’70s films like Deep Throat, The Devil in Miss Jones, and Behind the Green Door were playing at neighborhood movie houses, and “normal” people were going to see them, unashamed. They’d talk about them at work and with their friends. This was a big change. Deep Throat wasn’t released until 1972, but the changes that made it possible were well underway when Claire’s Knee came out in 1970.

Jerome is nothing if not the voice of the new morality. “When something pleases me, I do it for pleasure. Why tie myself down with one woman if others still interested me?” “Love and friendship are the same,” he says. “I respect Lucinde’s freedom, and she respects mine.”

Jerome thinks he has it all under control. He thinks he can grab a bit of pleasure here, a bit of freedom there, and manage it all with his wits and good judgment. He’s an adult, after all.

Claire proves him wrong. Claire takes Jerome to a place beyond reason, beyond sober analysis. Jerome becomes captive to what John Maynard Keynes (in another context) called “animal spirits.”

That is the message of Claire’s Knee. Love is a serious business, and sex is a serious business. It’s not always possible to control it with “reason” (the message of My Night at Maud’s) or with a casual, “free love” approach to life (the message of Claire’s Knee). The older, harsher, more dogmatic rules were created to deal with the physical and elemental side of romance and sex. Rohmer is saying that, perhaps, we should think twice before setting them aside.

Now let’s consider, again, the visual style of Claire’s Knee. Yes, the film is in color. It’s set in a bucolic paradise, and every scene is informed by beautiful, bright, orgiastic colors. The opening credits use a typeface that heralds sexy fun to come, and the letters are pink. Rohmer said that every one of his films was associated, in his mind, with a color. For Claire’s Knee, the color was pink.

It’s a porn film, or rather a parody, a mockery, of a porn film. It’s Confessions of a Window Cleaner or The Immoral Mr. Teas. A man, some milquetoast guy, is able to indulge his fantasies without responsibility. It’s not real, and when the film ends, the man returns to his tedious life. It’s a classic male fantasy: There are beautiful women everywhere; there’s a sense of freedom; there’s a fairy-tale setting. At some point it ends, and normal life resumes.

So it is in Claire’s Knee. Jerome arrives in his little boat. We see the swans and the flowers, and there’s Aurora, watching from overhead. Aurora absolves Jerome of responsibility. She all but orders Jerome to have a romance with Laura; she suggests that he might want to marry Claire; and she allows her own body to be groped by Jerome for just about every second she’s on the screen with him. (She does plenty of groping of her own.) When Jerome declares himself some kind of a hero for making Claire cry, Aurora goes along.
But Rohmer isn’t going along. He thinks it’s all a crock — the whole milieu, the whole lifestyle, the whole philosophy. It’s life as a porn film. It’s not going to work.

Robert Garrick – attorney, board member of the French-heritage organization Les Amis, and former contributor to the film blog – will introduce and discuss Claire's Knee at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 14. Register for the free livestream discussion here.