Claire's Knee (1970)
July 4, 2022 4:14 PM - Subscribe

On lakeside summer holiday, a conflicted older man is dared to have a flirt with two beautiful teenage stepsisters despite his betrothal to a diplomat's daughter and the fact that the girls have boyfriends.

Jerome (Jean-Claude Brialy) decides to prepare for a lifetime of matrimony by enjoying one last vacation by himself. Upon arriving at his lakeside destination, however, he finds Aurora (Aurora Cornu), a love from his past who is staying nearby. Through Aurora, Jerome is introduced to two teenage sisters, Laura (Béatrice Romand) and Claire (Laurence De Monaghan). Although Laura is smitten with Jerome, it is Claire -- or, more precisely, her knee -- that fascinates the soon-to-be-married man.

Roger Ebert: As with all the films of Eric Rohmer, "Claire's Knee" exists at levels far removed from plot (as you might have guessed while I was describing the plot). What is really happening in this movie happens on the level of character, of thought, of the way people approach each other and then shy away. In some movies, people murder each other and the contact is casual; in a work by Eric Rohmer, small attitudes and gestures can summon up a university of humanity.

Rohmer has an uncanny ability to make his actors seem as if they were going through the experiences they portray. The acting of Beatrice Romand, as sixteen-year-old Laura, is especially good in this respect; she isn't as pretty as her sister, but we feel somehow she'll find more enjoyment in life because she is a...well, a better person underneath. Jean-Claude Brialy is excellent in a difficult role. He has to relate with three women in the movie, and yet remain implicitly faithful to the unseen Lucinda. He does, and since the sexuality in his performance is suppressed, it is, of course, all the more sensuous. "Claire's Knee" is a movie for people who still read good novels, care about good films, and think occasionally.

Vincent Canby: "Claire's Knee" unfolds like an elegant fairy tale in a series of enchanted and enchanting encounters, on the lake, in gardens heavy with blossoms, in interiors that look like Vermeers. Everything in this world has sharply defined edges, like the lake, which is not bordered by beach but by a manmade quay.Jerome, Aurora and Laura live according to sharply defined rules of behavior. Although they may seem romantic in that their conversation is mostly of love and friendship, this is, of course, a human activity of the most refined sort. When they explore their own emotions, test their feelings and exercise aspects of their will, it is a sport for esthetes. For them, in spite of all their talk about being bored with love and suffocated by beauty, each polite meeting becomes as fraught with suspense and danger as a confrontation of gladiators.Beneath this surface level, "Claire's Knee" is also about self-deception, about cruelty, about a certain kind of arrogance that goes with wisdom, and very much about sex. It is no accident that the beautiful, lean, comparatively stupid Claire, for whom Jerome conceives his "pure desire," is the only person in the movie enjoying, at the moment, a completely satisfactory, uninhibited sex life.The film is as physically lovely as any I've seen in years, and the performances are of such variety and wit that they should remove forever the notion that Rohmer, with his literary sensibility, is not essentially a filmmaker. Everyone is fine, but I have special feeling for Miss Romand, who grows up in such mysterious and wonderful ways in front of the camera, and for Miss Cornu, a novelist and poet in real life, who comes close to being a total woman."Claire's Knee" is a difficult film to do justice to without over-selling it. It is so funny and so moving, so immaculately realized, that almost any ordinary attempt to describe it must, I think, in some way diminish it.
: Reviews of the time indicate a much different standard for Aurora’s plot. Roger Ebert wrote that while Jérôme and Laura click, “of course the man does not take advantage of the young girl.” But here is a grown, respected man initiating intimate contact with teen girls/women not even half his age, while he’s engaged. He’s got a female collaborator who thinks that’s great. She assures him Claire will age well. “I think she’ll become a beautiful woman. I mean she’ll fill out in the right places.” She asserts that “very few” pretty young women look great at 30 but that Claire will “resist the onslaught” of time. “It’s not too late,” Aurora actually tells Jérôme. “If she suits you, you’re still single. Marry her!”

(The next and last film in Rohmer’s series, “Chloe in the Afternoon,” will have the title character assuming both the Laura and Aurora role. That film is perceptive but gets bogged down in boredom, characters entertaining infidelity because there’s nothing else to do.)

Vincent Canby called “Claire’s Knee” “a superlative motion picture” and “very close to being a perfect movie of its kind.” But he ignores a big problem, that Rohmer depicts nothing special about Claire’s knee. The close-ups of this body part have an emperor-has-no-clothes element. Whatever about it has somehow caught Jérôme’s fancy doesn’t register with the viewer the way everything else about her does. Unlike in “10” (or, in a really offbeat parallel, “Shallow Hal”), we see Claire the way the rest of the world sees her, not the way in which Jérôme is fantasizing about her.

Whatever Lucinde might think of this is irrelevant. Would she be more concerned about his interest in the girls or in Aurora? Jérôme has attained a level of intimacy with each woman. The victory is apparently his realization that his conquest of Claire must not be sexual. Rather, he has exploited her supposed vulnerability by touching her knee. He’s never done anything “so heroic,” he brags to Aurora, and insists it took “a lot of courage.” (Again, we are in fantasy-land here.)

Aurora validates this outcome, stating there is “nothing perverse” about it.

Jérôme declares, “The girl’s body no longer obsesses me ... It’s as if I’d had her, I’m fulfilled.”

It’s inevitable that marrying Lucinde will not be nearly so exhilarating. For those on Jérôme’s wavelength, this is a meaningful picture. For those who aren’t, it’s 90 minutes of absolutely nothing. By autumn, Claire may hardly remember Jérôme, oblivious that she has apparently improved a marriage in Sweden.
posted by Carillon (2 comments total)
The setting on this was pretty wonderful, the lake was beautiful, with the mountains in the background, just a lovely setting. There was a lot in the relationships to dig into, and this is a cultural thing maybe, but had they been older by a few years it would have been a lot more interesting. I appreciated that Jerome didn't go where I was afraid this would go, but that the threat was present didn't sit super well with me.

I will say if someone does have access to the original Pauline Kael review I'd love to read it. I tried to find it but don't have access to the New Yorker archives and couldn't find it easily elsewhere on the internet.
posted by Carillon at 4:17 PM on July 4, 2022

When I was a kid, this movie was ridiculed by the popular culture of the time for being French, having subtitles, making no sense, somehow being about sex in an obscure French way, being pretentious. I was surprised when I finally saw it- it's a pretty good movie.
posted by acrasis at 5:07 PM on July 4, 2022 [1 favorite]

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