Clarie’s Knee is the penultimate entry in Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales. Like its five cousins, it’s an intellectually dense, leisurely paced and visually elegant exploration into the massive ambiguities of life, love, humanity and, well, morality. Eric Rohmer may be the ultimate logician of the cinema as well as being one of its finest writers. Here, like elsewhere in the Tales, he has finely crafted his characters and set them forth to explore the themes that concern him. He maintains a certain cool detachment, letting the dialogue and actions speak for themselves without making bold pronouncements with his camera. And here, like elsewhere, he ultimately invites the audience to ponder along with him.
Claire’s Knee is set near Annecy in France where Jerome (Jean-Claude Brialy) is vacationing and meeting one of his best friends, Aurora (Aurora Cornu). Aurora is a writer and she finds his decision to leave his playboy life behind fascinating. She also happens to be lodging with another woman who has two daughters named Laura and Claire. Laura is younger at 16 and develops a crush on Jerome, who allows himself to indulge in flirtations with her as an “experiment” for the sake of Aurora’s writing. But when the older, blonde Claire (Laurence de Monaghan) shows up, Jerome develops a genuine obsession, deciding that Claire’s knee is her sensual “weak point” and that if he can touch it he’ll be able to overcome his fixation.
While My Night at Maud’s was obsessed with more abstract morality as filtered through a religious lens, Claire’s Knee returns to the sexual politics of Rohmer’s previous entry, La Collectionneuse, to explore the nature of love, loss and fidelity. The two films share quite a bit in common, but this entry differs in the key fact that it’s about an older man and two younger women instead of a woman and two similarly aged men. This creates a whole other level of intrigue combined with the fact that Jerome is engaged to be married and has declared his lack of interest in other women, that the others are all the same.
The two films also share the gorgeous cinematography of Néstor Almendros. Rohmer isn’t a flashy director, but Almendros accommodates Rohmer’s simplistic taste with a painterly color palette and an impressionistic take on its idyllic images. Almendros is able to enhance Rohmer’s patient, meditative direction and writing through the subdued beauty of the images, never rushing things or calling attention to the camera. But for those who are actively engaged, the beauty is readily apparent as the film truly feels like a Monet painting come to vivid life.
The performances, in true Rohmer fashion, are all subtle and nuanced, with the omnipresent feeling that infinitely more is happening under the surface than is being directly shown. Even if Brialy’s Jerome is a bit unsympathetic, he is nonetheless fascinating. One gets the feeling that Aurora would have made an even more interesting lead. Cornu plays her with a perceptive honesty that creates much of the interesting dynamics between she and Brialy. The two girls, Romand’s Laura and Monaghan’s Claire, are both alluring in their own ways; Romand because of her curiosity, intelligence and vigor, Monaghan because of her natural beauty and femininity.
Ultimately, it’s Rohmer’s writing which draws the most praise and the most hatred; it’s extremely literary, drawing on scenes pregnant with conceptual dialogue. If one doesn’t connect with the ideas then the writing is going to weigh the film down like an anchor in a dinghy. For others, it’s going to be the singular element which attracts them to the film. Claire’s Knee, like all others in Rohmer’s Tales, is a film that leaves the audience with plenty to think about, but here especially as it is surely the most mysterious of the sextet. It subtly delves into the nature of love, fidelity, obsession and fetishism, investigating how they seem to intertwine more than the vast majority of people would ever admit or are even aware.