Summer film 9: Claire’s Knee (1970)

Eric Rohmer is the perfect director for summer films – removal from familiar surroundings, chance encounters, the heat of the sun and days at leisure can all make us act in unusual ways. He captures the ephemerality and beauty of summer as few directors can. There are several films of his I could have chosen which I love – Pauline at the beach, A summer’s tale, The green ray, The collector. In the end though, I went with Claire’s Knee, perhaps Rohmer’s most famous film along with My Night at Maud’s, for the simple reason that apart from being a wonderful film, I used to live in Annecy where it is set so it brings back happy memories of this beautiful place.

Claire’s Knee is the penultimate film in the Moral Tales series which all have a common theme of (Rohmer’s description) “a man meeting a woman at the very moment when he is about to commit himself to someone else.” I think it’s important to clarify that by ‘moral tales’ Rohmer doesn’t imply anything judgemental. Rather, it’s an investigation from a philosophical point of view, probing deeper into human behaviour and feelings. The characters’ actions speak for themselves.

The story is quite simple; Jérôme (Jean-Claude Brialy, superb) is a diplomat engaged to be married who is staying for a few weeks at a friend’s house on Lake Annecy where he finds himself attracted to Laura (Béatrice Romand), a teenage girl also staying there. He is encouraged by old friend, Aurora (Aurora Cornu), a novelist who persuades him to flirt with her so that she will have some material for her next book.  At first it starts out like a game. Jérôme and Laura are attracted to one another and enjoy flirting but he soon becomes captivated by her step-sister Claire (Laurence de Monaghan) and becomes particularly fixated on her perfect knee. Will Jérôme succeed in seducing Claire away from her boyfriend and will he go through with the marriage after all?

The way I’ve summarised the plot might make you roll your eyes at the thought of another ‘older man, much younger woman’ scenario but it’s all done very tastefully and with a lot of wry humour. There’s nothing perverted here, it’s just a witty and playful exploration of sensuality and the ways in which we delude ourselves. Plus, anyone who has seen a Rohmer film before will know there’s a lot of talking and that they have a kind of innocence about them which would be unimaginable in today’s cinema. It’s definitely not a film which will appeal to everyone – too verbose and boring for some but I find Rohmer’s films, particularly the Moral Tales, a breath of fresh air, and a chance to explore human emotions in beautiful settings. The photography by the great Néstor Almendros is also exquisite and there’s a hilarious early role for Fabrice Luchini.