(This is a somewhat rambling post, as I was just trying to get down thoughts as quickly as possible in a Jack Kerouac style upchuck. The dashes indicate new thoughts in lieu of any continuity between paragraphs).
CLAIRE'S KNEE came at the perfect time for me. I was just in the middle of reading D.H. Lawrence’s WOMEN IN LOVE when I decided to give it a chance. Lawrence, to me, is excellent at exploring the psychology of his characters and giving them rich, interesting personalities. His prose is lyrical, beautiful, and dense; his thoughts and symbols are profound and plenteous. CLAIRE’S KNEE felt like a wonderful companion piece to Lawrence. It’s characters, symbols, lyricism–they all felt like the rich pieces of great literature.
This probably comes as no great revelation to anyone who’s seen a Rohmer film. Rohmer’s work is often called “literary,” sometimes favorably, other times pejoratively. I don’t know how he could ever be criticized for being “literary,” it is basically like criticizing him for being too intelligent. Intelligence and insight are clearly his forte. He’s brilliant at characterization, dialogue, motivation, psychology. He understands that people don’t just tick absently, but that they function according to a wealth of laws, criteria, ideas, emotions, etc. His characters are complex, and the situations they find themselves in are multifarious; there is no black-and-white in a Rohmer film (at least from what I’ve seen), only ever deepening shades of gray.
CLAIRE’S KNEE, like all of the moral tales, is about the flux of desire–desire and subsequent repudiation. In all of the moral tales, a man is tempted by one woman and chooses another (Rohmer rule of thumb: always choose the blonde). Rohmer, thankfully, isn’t interested in why we would say “yes” to desire (the answer is obvious), but why we would say no to it (the answer is much less obvious). This exploration of the “no” is what makes his tales so effective and what makes CLAIRE’S KNEE so genuinely beautiful.
-The film is flawless work of characterization. It lives and breathes like rarely any other. The characters are all incredibly alive; they talk too much, they do mean things, they act foolishly, they act mysteriously, they act strangely. The strangeness of the characters is exactly what makes them so human, and what allows us to reflect upon them.
-Jerome’s strangeness and somewhat inscrutability is really the center of the film. He’s an aging Don Juan of sorts who’s finally about to settle down and reform his ways. He meets an old flame, Aurora, and is ostensibly tempted and tested by the two teenagers (Laura and Claire) who live with her. But really Jerome is being tested by Aurora. His flirtation with Laura and his desire to caress Claire’s knee are merely parts of a deeper desire to return to his youthful days with Aurora. To caress Claire’s knee would be in essence to caress youth itself; a life never lived or a life now vanished.
-Do Aurora and Jerome deserve blame for manipulating the two teenagers in their little flirtatious game together? Yes. Their literary playfulness is irresponsible and perhaps reprehensible. But their desire to play off the two teens speaks volumes about their own desires for each other.
-Claire’s knee is a barrier, a test for Jerome. If he can touch the knee and go no further then he has overcome his youthful desire and is ready for his new adult life with his fiancee.
-We never see the fiancee because we have entered a fantasy world of youthful desire from the moment the film begins. The first shot of the film shows Jerome driving his boat underneath a small bridge with Aurora placed directly above him. This passage under the bridge is a movement towards a fantastical and impossible realm of pure desire and youthful eroticism.
-The realm the film inhabits tests Jerome’s desires and the film tests our own desires with him. When Jerome becomes too friendly with Laura on a hike and kisses her we feel slightly repulsed. There is something dangerous about this seduction. For one, we know how young Laura is, and for another, we know how much of a game it is to Jerome. Laura is basically a good kid–smart, precocious, thoughtful, quick. We desire to protect or befriend her, not to seduce her. His actions with her are all wrong.
-Claire, of course, is beautiful and an object of pure desire. She’s remarkably less interesting than Laura, but physically alluring. In some ways, we desire Jerome to touch her knee. Just to see what would happen. Just to see if it would be a catalyst or a revelation for him. When he finally gets her alone, he cruelly mistreats her, exposing her immaturity and childlike brokenness in the process. We no longer desire him to touch her knee. When he finally does, it seems like a molestation– a selfish act. His and our desire is put to a test. Jerome seems to have passed the test because he has touched the knee and gone no further. He has felt a life of youthful abandon but repudiated its flesh. Have we passed the test as well? If we can recognize Claire as the child she truly is then I think we have.
-The best thing about Rohmer is that his tests, his objects of desire, are never denied their humanity. Aurora, Laura, and even Claire are all given their moments of pure subjectivity. Aurora, throughout the film in her role as provocateur and author; Laura, in all her moments of self-revelation; and Claire, in her final vulnerable break-down. In this way, the film isn’t just a test of desire, but a test at spotting humanity, at realizing that people are more than objects in a game we play. They live and they breathe, just like CLAIRE'S KNEE.