Eric Rohmer, 1970, France
Criterion Number 342 (no. 5 of the collected Six Moral Tales)
Nothing conjures summer quite like an Eric Rohmer film, and so I start my journey here with the master of the ethical fable, and one of my favourite filmmakers. This fifth in Rohmer's Moral Tales series, le genou de Claire laces together themes of fidelity and desire so delicately that the slightest shift in the cool breeze of the Alpine lac d'Annecy might throw it all awry. The French/Swiss border lake north of Grenoble serves as a spectacular backdrop to the unwinding of the personal intrigue of Jerôme, a man just slightly past his prime, flirting with ideas of continuing the promiscuity of his past on the eve of his marriage. As always with Rohmer, seasoned actors mix with newcomers and the pace sets itself. Title cards tell of the passing of days and feel like chapter headings of a lazy summer book, the kind we bring to the beach and read only a page of each day (in the idyllic holiday).
As in all his movies, Rohmer's ironic take on relationships stays firmly grounded in an almost intractable sense of the natural order of things, which includes in his world a belief that fixed and committed relationships work best. With this destination in mind, he enjoys putting his characters through distraction and disaffection, tumbling them in and out of almost-bed with one another, while they sort out where their hearts are leading them. His are character-driven films, in which the camera discovers with us the inevitable truths to be revealed. There is no way to predict the course of narrative in his tales. Not because they are spellbinding and full of clever twists, but precisely because they are not. Rohmer is the master of the anti-climax, but one which feels like a relief and a release.
Jerôme is guided by Aurore (played by Aurora Cornu), a novelist searching for inspiration who volunteers him to 'experiment' a contrived situation of love by getting him to appear to return the love of a young girl. He does so, and since he has no genuine desire for her, regrets himself. Things change when he first feels desire for her sister (by marriage), Claire. Confronted with Claire's knee while she is up a ladder, he feels a twinge of that which the novelist had hoped to inspire elsewhere.
Jerôme does not pursue Claire so much as pursue an idea about wanting Claire. The idea is what taunts him, not the woman herself. When circumstance leads them both into a scenario for possible romance, the action of putting his hand on Claire's knee becomes transformative for Jerôme. Believing himself to be ridding the girl of a terrible boyfriend, his fidelity of purpose supplants his desire and he feels an almost altruistic happiness. The movie's final scene makes clear the irony of this conceit, but no one cares. The characters end up where they belong and integrity is in tact.
A mainstay of a Rohmer film is that the hero/ine is never in love with the right person. In this film, the transitory love of youth is personified in the disingenuos performance of Béatrice Romand who plays Laura, a 16 year old girl in a sort of Nabokovian state of transition into nubile sexuality, in love with Jerôme but much too smart to move there too quickly. Instead, she talks to him about it, while lying in his arms on a mountainous hillside. People talk in Rohmer films, more than they do, and it astonishes me therefore that I like them so much. But the talk in these films is a spiritual journeying, a kind of voyage of self that is pragmatic and distancing but also captures the essence of how love works. The nearest equivalent I can think of is Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise and Before Sunset.
In the end, the characters' own blasé approach to relationships guides them best. Rohmer loves the subtle ways in which youthful hearts shift direction and yet he also refuses to see that as capricious or fanciful. These are deeply felt dalliances, even if the gold evenings of the Côte d'Azur wash them in romantic light.