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One Hour Mark: Claire’s Knee

By Andreas

I’ve long considered Claire’s Knee to be the visual high point of Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales. Sure, it lacks the metaphysical intrigue of My Night with Maud, and it shares it gifted cinematographer Néstor Almendros (who won a well-deserved Oscar for Days of Heaven) with other beautiful Rohmer films like La Collectionneuse and Love in the Afternoon. But you can really feel the sun-kissed alpine setting of Claire’s Knee: the constant hum of wind, birds, and motorboats; the gentle motion of the trees and water. This place, like the film around it, is truly and palpably alive.

The image above, from 1:00:00 into Claire’s Knee, is from a rare shot that doesn’t showcase the stunning lakes and mountains of eastern France. Instead, it showcases all the film’s human youth and vivacity during a Bastille Day dance. On the far left is the romantic, fascinating Laura, dancing with the bearded, engaged protagonist Jerome (Jean-Claude Brialy); on the right are Laura’s icy sister Claire and her boyfriend Gilles. Conveniently, this shot’s composition sums up the film’s real conflict: Jerome is alluring to Laura, but he’s obsessed with the unavailable Claire.

You may have noticed that the sisters are in their teens. This makes Jerome seem pretty creepy, yes, but it’s also part of the film’s strange charm. Jerome doesn’t want to possess or have sex with these much younger girls—he just wants to touch Claire’s knee. The moral dilemma is whether or not he should. It’s such an ethereal crisis to build a movie around, but Rohmer pulls it off. His films (including his last, 2007’s The Romance of Astrea and Celadon) are lighter than air but never trifling or insignificant.

Whether or not to touch a knee may look like an absurd premise, but Claire’s Knee goes deeper: it’s about the underlying, often irrational desires that goad us on. It’s about Jerome’s moth-to-flame attraction to the luminous youth of these two sisters, and to the potentially immoral freedom he’ll never regain. As the song that’s playing comes to an end, Jerome says to Laura, “This isn’t a dance for me. I’m too old.” It’s not quite poignant, since he’s not actually old and is in the midst of playing all these selfish games, but it does get across what this scene (and to an extent, this film) is about. That is, Jerome’s fear of the mummification of marriage, and his incipient (symbolic) inability to dance.

It’s all in this frame, whose static top half is filled by the night sky and the colorful, carefully arranged lights, while the bottom pulsates with layers of bouncy, attractive party-goers. For Bastille Day, and for the summer, they’re alive. For now, at least, Jerome is too. Rohmer’s beautiful, nebulous films always have a built-in sense of mortality, with the knowledge that time will pass, flowers will wilt, looks will fade, and fiancés will get married. The sun rises, and my night with Maud is over. But tonight, we are beautiful—and tonight, we dance.

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Eric Rohmer and Love’s Madness

This is my contribution to The Late Show, a blogathon being held by David Cairns of Shadowplay. The premise is simple: it’s the end of the year, so let’s write about the ends of filmmakers’ careers. Thus, I have for you a true swan song: the late Eric Rohmer’s The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007), a film about love, loyalty, beauty, youth, and all the other themes that preoccupied Rohmer across his half-century film career. It’s also extraordinarily beautiful in a way that recalls Rohmer’s many collaborations with cinematographer Néstor Almendros, like Love in the Afternoon (1972) or Claire’s Knee (1970, my favorite). It’s also, quite simply, a charming and lovable movie.

“Love is mad,” says Celadon. This film is about just that: love’s madness and its many forms. Based loosely on a 17th century novel set in 5th century Gaul, Astrea and Celadon traces the path taken by the titular shepherdess and shepherd, each of whom is intractably smitten with the other, as they’re separated and must fight to be rejoined. Their trials all start because Celadon – per his parents’ commands – must pretend to be in love with another shepherdess; Astrea thinks this charade is real, and doubts Celadon’s fidelity. To prove his love, he throws himself into the river, only for his body to be discovered by a trio of castle-dwelling nymphs, one of whom is lovelorn.

From here, they must overcome one obstacle after another. Finding no body, Astrea thinks Celadon is dead – a belief that persists until the film’s final moments. Celadon, however, cannot reveal the truth to her, because of her last, spiteful order that he stay away. So one misunderstanding leads to another as the two mixed-up lovers puzzle out the shifting rules that guide human relationships and wander across the blooming Gallic countryside. Meanwhile, through its peripheral characters, the film makes detours into religious rites, divinity, and the differences between pure and impure love. As always, Rohmer – a Renaissance man, like other members of the French New Wave – has a lot on his mind, and he’s not afraid to explore it through dense, meandering conversations.

Unlike a lot of last films, this is a swan song worthy of its director’s oeuvre. It’s just as delicate and understated as any of his work, and is bursting with intellectual inquiry and creative energy; despite being 87 when he made it, Rohmer had lost none of his artistic spark, nor his ability to sympathetically portray impulsive, lovestruck youth. Like his Six Moral Tales, Astrea and Celadon is about desires and choices, lies and truths. Like those films, it confronts its characters’ romantic decisions and their consequences. During one erotically charged sequence, for example, Celadon stumbles upon Astrea, his lost love, sleeping blindfolded in the woods. Slowly, fearfully, he bends over her and, just as their lips are about to touch, she wakes up. He runs away, but she catches a glimpse of him and believes she has seen the dead Celadon’s soul.

The stakes of this scene are high, but entirely intangible. No one’s going to die, and no war is going to be lost. But Celadon, if caught, will break an immutable contract between him and the girl he loves, and that matters as much as anything. Through nuanced characterization and slightly tricky plotting, Rohmer can set up tiny, even imperceptible actions as the objects of great importance. Love, as Celadon says, is mad; it’s irrational and self-contradictory. Rohmer’s lovers grow closer and closer, but must stay apart for reasons they don’t fully understand.

Toward the end of the film, a helpful druid organizes one last charade: Celadon, with his feminine features, will pose as his daughter Alexia. Thus disguised, he spends day and night with Astrea, who suspects nothing but feels an instant rapport with her new acquaintance. Through this duplicity, they are able to know each other anew – and Rohmer can also engage the complexities of gender relations. He doesn’t treat the cross-dressing frivolously, but as a new way for the lovers to find and understand each other, and through this, the film’s last few seconds (the last few seconds of Rohmer’s whole career) are profoundly satisfying.

Celadon’s transgressions of gender norms are not forgotten, but folded into the happy ending. Astrea finally sees the girl she’s been kissing as the male love she presumed dead, and everything shifts into place. It’s a “God’s in his heaven / All’s right with his world” moment, and in true Rohmer form, it’s fully realized just as the credits begin to roll. There’s no fanfare or swelling music, but the ending’s impact still penetrated my emotions. That’s the magic of Eric Rohmer at work. He makes no concessions to Hollywood-bred clichés or received wisdom about how to film romance, but nonetheless makes love stories like no others.

And make no mistake: Astrea and Celadon is a strikingly, rapturously beautiful movie. Shot on location in rural France by Diane Baratier, it feels authentically like a Renaissance understanding of ancient Gaul, with little on the soundtrack but birdsong, footsteps, and human voices as its characters trek through miles of sunlit greenery. (The cast members, as well, universally match their surroundings’ beauty.) It’s as pastoral as a movie can be, filmed so gently and sweetly that it plays like a visual sonnet cycle. Once you enter this world, you don’t want to leave. You just want to hand yourself over to Rohmer, and sink into his idyllic vision of the world. He may be gone now, but at least he left so many films behind to comfort us.

Addendum: for what it’s worth, there’s no consensus on the title of this film – i.e., whether there’s a “The” at the beginning, or whether it’s “Astree” or “Astrea” – so I just went with the title on the DVD case.

And so, what about you? Are you intrigued by Rohmer’s vision of love and loss? Have you dipped into earlier areas of his filmography? All comments are welcome.

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