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.