Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: As August kicks off and the warmest season begins drawing to a close, we’re looking back at some of our favorite summer-themed movies.
Perhaps the most famous moment in the filmography of the French writer-director Éric Rohmer occurs an hour into Claire’s Knee, the penultimate entry in his career-making cycle, the Six Moral Tales, for which some context is required. Each of the Moral Tales is a minimalist wonder that tells the same basic story in which a man who’s married, engaged, or otherwise enamored flirts with what is usually a one-sided temptation. These trivial personal quandaries (which seemed very sophisticated to American audiences in the 1970s) are nothing less than object lessons in mental gymnastics, invested with droll wisdom, ambiguity, and varying quantities of such Catholic ingredients as guilt and introspection. Rohmer’s highly literate characters exist in states of verbal maneuvering, and what they do (which, in the leisurely Moral Tales, is very little) matters significantly less than what they think they are doing. All of this contributes a literary flavor to Rohmer’s filmmaking, as does his singular obsession with nature and the seasons.
In the latter respect, Claire’s Knee is an exceptionally vivid work, as it is set over one month of a typically mild Rohmer summer. Jérôme (Jean-Claude Brialy), a 35-year-old diplomatic attaché, has come to spend some time near the French Alps before he sells the family property and marries his girlfriend. His friend, the novelist Aurora (Aurora Cornu), is renting a room nearby from the mother of a precociously intelligent and self-aware teenager named Laura (Béatrice Romand). She develops a crush on Jérôme, which he definitely doesn’t mind. Like a number of Rohmer protagonists, Jérôme seems to be ignorant of his own self-serving and disingenuous motives. There are a number of subjects under scrutiny in this infinitely unpackable scenario, but the most obvious is the sublimation of one’s inner ahooga-ing Tex Avery wolf.
Which brings us to the moment in question. Laura’s leggy, blond half-sister, Claire (Laurence de Monaghan), who has arrived late and is at this point barely a character, is standing on a ladder in front of a cherry tree when Jérôme fixates on her bare knee. That the movie is called Claire’s Knee has already set certain expectations. But there is also the fact that Rohmer, who directs most dialogue scenes in extended two-shot, is not one for point-of-view shots or ogling close-ups of individual body parts, and what we are seeing is both. Whatever feelings may be stirring in Jérôme will now be directed at this patch of skin. To admit that he wants to have sex with a teenage girl would be below a man of Jérôme’s worldliness. Believing that all he wants is to grasp Claire’s knee only once makes it more perverse.
Many more paragraphs could be devoted to the way the film weaves scathing insights on desire, delusion, and their creepy rationalizations into a drama in which the only thing that is acted upon is a touch on a knee. But Rohmer’s environmental concerns, which can seem like a contradiction to the interiority of his characters, are worth mentioning. More than a few movies have taken inspiration from this interplay of emotional lives and surroundings (such as Call Me By Your Name, which also pays homage to Rohmer’s memorably dorky dance scenes), but none have ever replicated his devotion to depicting seasons and scenery with the same degree of subtlety and realism that he applied to his characters. By all accounts, his attention to weather patterns and flora was as meticulous as his rehearsal process. This is something more than a filmmaker’s quirk. The backdrop of a mild, flowering summer—as opposed to those hot movie summers where emotions rise with the temperature and humidity—makes the psychologies of self-evading characters like Jérôme more conspicuous. After all, this is what they do in their free time.
Availability: Claire’s Knee is available to stream on the Criterion Channel.