Whereas some of his peers in the French New Wave were provocateurs who blended experimental techniques with radical politics (here’s looking at you, Monsieur Godard), Eric Rohmer took a different path. Crafting cerebral character studies bereft of cinematic fireworks, Rohmer was something of an essayist for the big screen, using copious amounts of dialogue and/or voiceover to explore the foibles of humankind. Throughout his career, Rohmer made groups of films that he linked with series titles, and the first such group was called Six Moral Tales. Commencing with a short film titled The Bakery Girl of Monceau (1963), Six Moral Tales concluded with Rohmer’s first two features of the ’70s, Claire’s Knew and Chloe in the Afternoon. (The latter picture is sometimes titled Love in the Afternoon.) Both movies investigate questions of love and sexuality through the prism of men tempted by inappropriate women.
In Claire’s Knee, the better of the two pictures, a wealthy diplomat named Jerome (Jean-Claude Brialy) encounters a long-lost female friend named Aurora (Aurora Cornu) during a vacation in picturesque Lake Annecy. Although Jerome has a girlfriend, Aurora persuades Jerome to help with an experiment that she hopes will stimulate ideas for the novel she’s trying to write. Aurora asks Jerome to flirt with Laura (Béatrice Romand), the teenaged daughter of a mutual friend, in order to see whether Laura takes the bait. Jerome, who is accustomed to doing well with women, agrees partially because the experiment sounds intellectually stimulating and partially because the idea of a tryst with an attractive young woman is tantalizing. Yet plans go awry once Laura’s cousin Claire (Laurence de Monaghan) arrives in Lake Annecy. Unlike the dark and quirky Laura, Claire is a gleaming blonde, so Jerome becomes obsessed with Claire.
More specifically, as the title suggests, Jerome’s preoccupation fixates on Claire’s knee because Jerome sees Claire’s unworthy boyfriend touching her knee while giving her a line about how he’ll always be true. In Jerome’s addled mind, Claire’s knee is the way to her heart. Claire’s Knee tells an oddly compelling story that’s filled with unsettling sexual implications, even though the tone of the piece is clinical. Paralleling Aurora’s endeavor, the whole film feels like an experiment testing what happens when the heart and the mind interact. (As Aurora says, “Everyone wears blindfolds or at least blinders—writing forces me to keep my eyes open.”) The women in Jerome’s life display various fascinating colors, from Aurora’s playful detachment to Claire’s youthful arrogance to Laura’s sexy insouciance. In the middle of all this female energy is Jerome, whom Rohmer uses to represent a prevalent sort of testosterone-driven entitlement. “When something pleases me, I do it for pleasure,” Jerome says. “Why tie myself down with one woman when others interest me?”
Detractors of Rohmer’s restrained style could easily complain about the static visuals and the absence of a major climax, but Claire’s Knee adroitly captures the ephemeral feelings that people experience while moving through the intricate dance of attraction, achieving intimacy at one moment and lapsing into distance the next. Subtle profundities abound, and Rohmer’s filmmaking is as elegant in its simplicity as the acting of the expert cast is incisive.
The follow-up movie, Chloe in the Afternoon, tries to do more than its predecessor but ends up accomplishing less. The picture concerns a lawyer named Frédéric (Bernard Vaerley), who is married to beautiful teacher Hélène (Françoise Verley) but still has a wandering eye. During the first part of the film, Frédéric explains his shapeless ennui in voiceover: “The prospect of quiet happiness stretching indefinitely before me depresses me.” Put more bluntly, Frédéric is bored by marriage and preoccupied with the notion of fresh romantic conquests. Accordingly, he experiences a long fantasy sequence during which he wears an amulet that robs beautiful women of free will, giving him endless access to new sex partners. (Many of the actresses from Claire’s Knee cameo in this sequence.) Once the story proper gets underway, around 25 minutes into Chloe in the Afternoon, Frédéric receives a visit from an old flame, Chloé (played by one-named Gallic starlet Zouzou). In modern vernacular, she’s a hot mess, having spent years bouncing from job to job and from lover to lover without setting down roots. Frédéric helps Chloé get back on her feet, and the two steadily advance toward a tryst—even as Frédéric wrestles with the potential repercussions of transforming his erotic dreams into reality.
The beauty of Claire’s Knee is that it’s about, at least in part, a man realizing that his sense of sexual omnipotence is an illusion. The story is palatable because it humanizes a would-be Casanova. By comparison, Chloe in the Afternoon seems pedestrian and, within the chaste parameters of Rohmer’s style, déclassé. Beneath the surface of articulate dialogue and meticulous dramaturgy, it’s a trite tale about a wannabe philanderer who toys with the emotions of a vulnerable woman. After all, is Frédéric’s lament that “I take Hélène too seriously to be serious with her” anything but a trussed-up version of the old saw, “She doesn’t understand me”? Chloe in the Afternoon is a serious and worthwhile rumination on matters of the heart, but it’s not as novel or provocative as Claire’s Knee.
Claire’s Knee: GROOVY
Chloe in the Afternoon: GROOVY