Claire's Knee is a great film about touch and sight, but also about the gap between the two as Eric Rohmer explores the ease of touch in the first half, and its problematic nature in the second, all the while containing the film within a loosely philosophical framework that also illustrates Rohmer's gift for exploring problems rather than goals, and the cinematic that wouldn't be hampered by the visual. Jean Claude Brialy is Jerome, a man in his mid-to-late thirties who is soon to be married and is preparing to sell his house on Lake Annecy when he happens to meet a friend from the past, a novelist, Aurora (played by Aurora Cornu, the Romanian writer), who proposes that she will make him the centre of her next story. Through various permutations that include Jerome's flirtation with one of the daughter's of a neighbour, and then, later, a keen and aloof interest in the other daughter, Aurora will have her tale, and Rohmer his film.
Now both daughters are much younger than Jerome, both in their late teens, with the former, Laura (Beatrice Romand), pretty, and the latter, Claire, stunning. As the friend looks for the story to be set in motion, so she informs Jerome that Laura is already in love with him and he should acknowledge the nature of her feelings if for no better reason than that she will be given an opportunity to write about whatever drama comes out of the encounter. At one moment while Jerome and Laura go for a walk up round the mountains behind the lake, so Jerome kisses Laura on the lips and she pulls away. Afterwards, Jerome will explain to Aurora that the interest in the kiss lay not in his feelings but much more in Laura's reaction as he concludes that there was no suspense in the deed. As he will add later in the film, that has been one of the problems with his sexual and emotional conquests: he has only been someone for whom the conquest has come in the wake of knowing that the person is attracted to him already. Desire has followed seduction, not preceded it. He hasn't chased someone initially indifferent to him and ever caught her: his successful loves have been devoid of suspense; his failed ones obviously devoid of success.
Now we can see in the first half of the film why this success without seduction would be the case. Jerome is clearly someone for whom affection comes easy and with both Aurora and Laura he is constantly caressing, stroking and touching them as one might a pet or a child, yet also with a hint that this light touch could become sexually heightened. They have allowed him intimacy even if in different ways, and for different reasons, they withhold sexual pleasure, but at least Jerome can feel seductive in the process of his affections, and one wouldn't be surprised if this familiar approach towards women that allows for physical affection over sexual chemistry hasn't been Jerome's method in initiating relationships thus far. "Every time I've desired a woman beforehand I have been unsuccessful", he admits. Claire however clearly ignores him; or rather not so much ignores him as sees no reason to acknowledge his awareness of her beauty. Jerome first sees Claire as as he gets off his boat and comes towards the neighbour's house, looking for either the mother or Laura. As he does so Rohmer films it in a moment that hints at seduction, with Jerome moving towards Claire, and Claire towards him in a bikini. She is already tanned from the good weather in Paris, and Rohmer understands well the aesthetics of attraction, the audience's capacity to assume that when a beautiful woman comes into a film that she is not another character within the frame, but an object of inevitable focus, or better still, in Rohmer's work, a problem. Whether it happens to be Haydee in La Collectionneuse, the figure from the past in Love in the Afternoon, Arielle Dombasle's character in Pauline at the Beach, or Claire here, Rohmer is interested in the beautiful as a problem for a central character's equanimity. She is not a person who needs to be seduced, but often closer to a person who needs to be neutralised. She functions less as a test of the man's ego and his capacity to conquer her, than a test of his will and his capacity to overcome an aspect of his own self.
Now partly what makes this so amusing in the context of Claire's Knee is the disjunctive mismatch of desire at work between these two characters. Imagine this meeting between the attractive man in his mid-thirties and the woman in her late teens in another film, and let us make the example more extreme and concrete: the brief affair between a late teen and a man in his sixties in A Solitary Man, where Michael Douglas sleeps with the daughter of his already much younger girlfriend. As the young woman suspects the men she has thus far slept with didn't really know what they were doing, so Douglas explains that maybe she needs to tell them what she likes, and out of this conversational intimacy sexual intimacy develops, and that night they end up in bed together. Now for all sorts of reasons this is a disastrous encounter, but the film doesn't present it as an improbable one. Douglas's character has been predicated as someone who can't keep his eyes off youthful beauty, and whatever our own prejudices concerning affairs between much older men and much younger women, the encounter has its own emotional logic.
Yet this emotional logic is very different from Rohmer's, evident in the nature of the woman not as a goal but instead as a problem. If in many a film the male character requires a stratagem to seduce the woman, in Rohmer's work often the character needs a stratagem to create the maximum amount of space to deal with the problem the woman offers. If one sees Claire as a problem, it is because of how Jerome calibrates his ego in relation to her indifference. If in the first few moments when he sees her Jerome is confident and assured as he walks towards her, shortly afterwards, as he gets back in the boat after Claire's boyfriend arrives, he does so like a man who has aged a few years in a few seconds. As Claire has eyes only for the young man, so Jerome goes back to the boat as if defeated in love, but without any battle having taken place. Within seconds of meeting her, Claire has become a problem, yet this isn't at all the same as saying that Jerome has instantly fallen in love. As he says quite accurately to Aurora later on: "she troubles me." Where in the first half of the film Jerome is tactile and perhaps a little tactless (in relation to Laura), in the film's second half he is tactful and tactical: keeping his distance and thinking about his moves. As he says to Aurora, he happens to be very shy, and he's not used to making the first step, but what he really means it seems is that Claire represents for him a problem partly because even though he has never even really talked to her, he cannot deny that he is pulled towards her presence. When he goes on to say that he doesn't usually make the first move, taking into account how he acts so affectionately with Aurora and Laura in the first half, we can see that the first step wouldn't need to be made as a first step. The first step of touch has already been taken; but Claire remains a figure of sight and not of touch. How can he move from the visible to the tactile? How can he duplicate a gesture he sees so casually offered by the boyfriend as if utterly indifferent to the knee that he can touch at will? Can Jerome find justifiable reasons for touching that knee also?
As often happens with Rohmer, stratagems take place within the context of the contingent, and the misapprehended. So in My Night at Maud's the central character believes that his chastity concerning a night with Maud is a gesture of fidelity towards the woman he pursues, Francoise. But it turns out that Francoise is not quite the saintly figure our character believes her to be, and when she admits to an affair with a married man, he evens the score by claiming he slept with Maud. In An Autumn Tale, a married friend arranges for her reluctant, single best buddy to enter the dating world, and tests the man out herself by going on a date that leaves her motives very mixed and her feelings confused. In Rohmer's world one's stratagems are only as good as the contingent world, the motives of others, and the troublesome issue of one's own mixed motives. In Claire's Knee this is clearly the case when Jerome thinks he has the opportunity to gain Claire's confidence through happenstance. As Jerome wanders around town he sees through his binoculars Claire's boyfriend apparently affectionate with another girl. When he returns to Claire's family's place not long afterwards, Claire asks if he'll take her into town in his boat, where she says that her boyfriend isn't around because he had to go somewhere else. After the rain pours down, Jerome and Claire take refuge on land and find a shelter, and she explains that her boyfriend is in Grenoble, while Jerome explains what he saw, comforting her by caressing her knee.
However, after telling this story to Aurora, and after Jerome has left, Aurora overhears Claire and her boyfriend talking. He explains that he wasn't in Grenoble after all, and says that a mutual female friend needed to see him over emotional issues and he met with her and offered solace. Claire's of course happy that her boyfriend hasn't lied and cheated, and Aurora is amused at the misapprehension that nevertheless allowed Jerome to touch Claire's knee.
In an interview for Cahiers du cinema with Jean Narboni and others, the interviewers talks of Rohmer's ongoing interest in optimistic films as a critic and viewer, and of course optimism is often present in his own work also. By the end of Claire's Knee all the leading characters are hooked up and get more or less what they want. Laura takes up with a young man around her own age, Claire and her boyfriend will stay together, Jerome will go back to the woman whom he is marrying a little wiser and perhaps aware that he is no longer so young a man, and Aurora seems to have found love (as she announces to Jerome that she is getting engaged) and also has the story she was looking for. However, what makes Rohmer's work so interesting isn't, in American parlance, the pursuit of happiness, but the containment of it. In the pursuit of happiness we have the need for goals, but in Rohmer's films we often have something else: the pursuit of well-being, and Rohmer explores it in the interaction of the characters, in the films' settings, and in the manner in which he frames the images.
If we think of how Rohmer works with this notion of well-being, perhaps it'll be useful to take a step back and remind ourselves of Jerome's problem rather than his goal. This might lead us to assume a misogynistic side to Rohmer by virtue of the thinker we'll borrow to makes sense of the question Rohmer addresses in Claire's Knee, but we want neither to make ready assumptions about the thinker nor of course Rohmer. The thinker is Otto Weininger, through Slavoj Zizek's take in The Metastasis of Enjoyment. Here Zizek reckons "the key enigma of love is therefore: why does man choose woman as the idealized object in which he (mis) perceives the realization of his spiritual essence? Why does he project his salvation upon the very being responsible for his Fall, since - as we have already seen - man is split between his spiritual-ethical essence and the sexual longing aroused in him by woman's standing invitation to sexual intercourse." Now in most filmmakers' work this isn't a question addressed because the woman is the goal rather than the problem. They are a goal, or part of a goal, in the sense of an egoistic desire to possess the woman that one finds in any number of films where the man's ego is predicated on conquest, or by the shared goal that we find in a romantic comedy or an action film where two individuals of the opposite sex bond through adversity. But in Rohmer's work the woman often remains a problem partly because of this spiritual essence Zizek talks of through Weininger. When Rohmer says in the Cahiers du Cinemainterview, "at best, art is the revelation, in the universe, of the creator's hand. True enough, there can be no position more teleological or theological than mine" it is consistent with the issue of woman as a problem for one's spiritual essence. Though critics like John Orr in Contemporary Cinema see in Jerome the "jaded hedonist", and a "middle-aged voyeur", maybe it is more useful to see him as a figure caught between the man who seeks his spiritual essence and a figure who accepts the notion of the goal - whether it be womanising or marriage. As he explains he has never been much of a womaniser and has not yet committed to becoming a husband, we may see the film as a way-station between the desires of the flesh, the spirit and the social. But where the former and the latter are commonly explored, the interim has been left almost untouched cinematically.
Yet this is the place that Rohmer consistently investigates, and why he can claim there is no cinema more theological than his, and where a comment by philosopher Jacques Maritain can aid and abet the earlier Zizek, Weininger passage. As Maritain says in Existence and the Existent, "If I abandon myself to the perspective of subjectivity, I absorb everything into myself, and, sacrificing everything to my uniqueness, I am riveted to the absolute of selfishness and pride. If I abandon myself to the perspective of objectivity, I am absorbed into everything, and, dissolving into the world, I am false to my uniqueness and resign my destiny." Maritain reckons; "it is only from above that the antinomy can be resolved." Yet Rohmer offers the relationship between the subjective and the objective not as the presence of God, as such, but the presence of a place that is between the objective and subjective. This allows for the sovereign right of subjectivity to meet the contingent, and for Rohmer to create the space to show us that just because the individual is countered by contingency, this doesn't mean that the individual is undermined, nor objectivity paramount. Jerome's reading of the scene in town where Claire's boyfriend and a girl walk together may be erroneous, but it nevertheless gives him the opportunity to get to touch Claire's knee. Jerome doesn't even simply tell Claire what he sees; he only does so after Claire says that the boyfriend is in Grenoble. Understandably Jerome thinks that he's been lying to Claire, and tells her about what he saw in what might seem to him like a morally justifiable way. It gives him the opportunity to touch Claire's knee as he consoles her, but he hasn't lied to her to gain that opportunity, nor even told her what he saw until she tells him her boyfriend should be in Grenoble and Jerome knows that he was instead in towen. We might remember also that earlier in the film the boyfriend has acted obnoxiously with other people where he allows his boat to get dangerously close to the shore. Jerome would believe that his disclosure is useful to Claire, not only useful for his own ends. But of course at the end of the film we find out (as Jerome does not), that the boyfriend didn't go to Grenoble. Yet Jerome's misapprehension of the scenario nevertheless allows him to act in a way where he thinks his own and Claire's interests are being served. It would have been quite different had Jerome pragmatically told Claire a lie so that he could touch that knee.
Claire's Knee was the fifth in a series of what Rohmer called 'six moral tales', yet Rohmer's notion of morality is not categorical, nor even contractual, but contingent. If Kant can believe in categorical imperatives that insist our actions be universalised, and Rousseau in social contracts that can be socially agreed upon, Rohmer's ethical system is one that accepts one acts within a contingent universe where our actions are not only ours but contained by the accidental. Jerome it is true tries to find an outlet for his feelings by deciding that all he needs to do is touch Claire's knee, but he cannot do so in a Kantian manner by assuming it is a universally acceptable gesture as one might by, say, helping someone across the road; nor in a socially contractual way by asking permission if he could touch Claire's knee. Instead what he needs to do is not so much will the action, but wish it, yet wish it within the context of a wilful action. Jerome clearly wants to touch Claire's knee, and thus release himself from the voyeuristic relationship he has had thus far with Claire, but he cannot will it without also wishing for the context in which the knee can be touched. This wish is granted through a series of coincidences that include the boyfriend saying he will go to Grenoble, but that he instead gives solace to his friend in a gesture that looks like a romantic moment which Jerome happens to catch through his binoculars. Then Claire coincidentally asks for a lift into Annecy, where during the journey it starts to rain, and Jerome tells Claire, while they're sheltering, what he saw, and in consoling her he gets to touch her knee.
If Rohmer insists on a teleological and theological position, we must understand it in a very unusual way: it is neither a directive nor a religious moral system that is at work, which one might assume is pertinent to teleology (concerning end goals), and theology (which concerns a deity capable of directing events). If anything, it is about man's capacity to direct the will but to accept the indirectness of the universe. Kantian and social contract ethical systems do not make this leap that can from a certain perspective seem theological, fatalistic. If Kant insists that our actions be universally applicable, he is doing so on the assumption that rational behaviour can be generated out of rational human beings and that one's own mood, temperament and even ethos proves irrelevant next to the categorical assumption of the right action. As he says in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, "hence everything empirical, as an addition to the principle of morality, is not only quite inept for this; it is also highly prejudicial to the purity of morals, where the proper worth of an absolutely good will - a worth raised above all price - consists just in the principle of action being free from all influences of contingent grounds." This is transcendental in the sense that though it is an ethics for man's behaviour, it goes beyond the individual and seeks the universal. Thus acting well or badly for personal reasons, humanly, is irrelevant: what matters is to act according to the universal law. Social contract theory, though, is usually different in the sense that the universal isn't invoked, but the contractual is: the idea of a rational agreement between individuals, and thus rather more empirical and pragmatic. As John Rawls puts it in A Theory of Justice, "Justice as fairness begins, as I have said, with one of the most general of all choices which persons might make together, namely, with the choice of the first principles of a conception of justice which is to regulate all subsequent criticism and reform of institutions." Yet Rohmer somehow doesn't trust such systems of morality, and searches out his own in a decidedly cinematic and narrative manner.
Some will claim Rohmer's films are barely cinematic at all (a character in Arthur Penn's Night Moves talk of them as being like watching paint dry), but it as if Rohmerian ethics cannot be argued for, but narratively brought to bear, and then contained by a cinematic dimension that allows the story to be contained by the natural world. It is the combination of the rigour of storytelling with the location that makes Rohmer's films intriguingly cinematic. For though Rohmer insists on contingency for his characters, this does not mean there is contingency in the narration. Rohmer's films are as intricately scripted as a screwball comedy or a Feydeau farce, but because the sensibility is very different, and because the location is not merely a backdrop, the films have a feeling of immense freedom. Yet it is the tightness of the script which allows for the evolution of Rohmer's ethical system, his narration requires the precision of a philosopher's reasoning. He needs narratively to argue for an ethical system based not on universal laws or social contracts, but personal well-being.
This is why Rohmer so often premises his films on the feelings of his characters, as they try to explain their responses to marriage, family, work, climate, friendship and so on. But it is also why, while taking the characters' feelings seriously, he takes their actions less seriously. Often the reverse is true in film where actions are paramount and feelings secondary, with the feeling present as little more than motivation for an action. For example, when someone seeks revenge in a film, the feeling's purpose is to be the emotion that sets the story in motion: it is the series of actions and not the complexity of feeling the film details. Yet Rohmer often explores feeling without necessitating action and thus takes his characters' emotions seriously by not assuming they will lead to categorical behaviour. As Jerome and Aurora talk, it is as though they are creating not motives for actions but hypotheses for feelings. When they discuss why Jerome has never inspired Aurora's work, Jerome reckons it is because he is dull, and Aurora seems to agree but says that isn't the reason. Banal characters can still be used; it is more that she doesn't draw from events around her. When she suggests though that he flirts and possibly starts an affair with Laura, and he shows reluctance, she says it doesn't really matter: his refusal could become part of the story that she may write, suddenly interested in the situation in front of her eyes. All the while Jerome and Aurora are tactile and happy, as if a couple in love who can't quite keep their hands off each other, but at the same time clearly just friends. Rohmer needs to write not only a narration, but also within the story something resembling a counter narration. If we often have in philosophical argument not only the thesis but the counter thesis, not only the argument made but also the counter argument offered, equally Rohmer's films possess a narrative direction, but also a narrative echo, a sense that whatever story is told, there are other stories potentially equally possible, and other actions no less likely, while at the same time nevertheless stating a position. It is as if Rohmer consistently set out to examine the problem of ethical well-being and knew that to do justice to the subject he would catch himself in a paradox: he was required to contain the issue of the narratively contingent within the narratively rigorous, and we can see why this would require even more stringency than action-oriented story telling where well-being is contained within concrete results. If the couple gets together at the end of the film, if the villain is vanquished, or the dream job offered, the well-being is assumed within the narrative conclusion. But to make the feeling of well-being more important than the detailing of event, Rohmer is required to create both a story and also, and even more significantly, a mode of well-being that is greater than any narrative purpose.
To explain further, let us go through the story: Jerome is in Annecy looking to sell his house, and while there meets an old friend who is holidaying with a mother and her two daughters. He is soon to be married and she is single and in a more conventional tale we would wait until Jerome and Aurora realise that they love each other, and the moment they meet as Jerome drives his boat under an Annecy bridge and sees Aurora standing on it an example of meeting cute. The purpose of the film would be to create plausible obstacles before the couple come together. This would be the story, and the situations arising along the way would be no more than hindrances towards the inevitable. But Rohmer's respect for the specifics of a character's feelings, and the desire to create the maximum amount of freedom, means that inevitability constantly gives way to possibility. As he explores the various coincidences, projections, self-justifications and emotional nuances of the characters, so Rohmer creates a world that is full of possibilities within the inevitable: thoughts within actions. From a certain point of view one may even say Rohmer's work is philosophically more complex than many a philosopher's system since Rohmer has not only the through-line as narrative, as a philosopher has a through-line as an argument, but also the sub-textual possibilities within his characters.
When for example Aurora talks to Jerome near the end of the film of her new man, all we have seen of this figure in her life is a brief sequence where they meet with Jerome. Is she really so keen on this person or is she saying this partly because Jerome has been infatuated with young Claire? And earlier, when Jerome talks of Claire, Aurora talked of having a number of young men in one week. Initially she says, five, and settles for three. Is she telling the truth or merely provoking Jerome? It is not so much that she is lying - though that might be suggested in the number shifting from five to three - more that she is exemplifying, giving narrative detail to an argument that she is developing in relation to Jerome's interest in young Claire. In each instance, in Aurora telling Jerome that she has a new love, and talking of her conquests in one week, so we might wonder whether this is true or false for at least two reasons. One is that there is no consequence to the events, no evidence in the former instance of these men Aurora says she seduced, nor in the latter do we see again the man we have seen her with earlier and that would make us decide for ourselves whether it is likely she is in love with him. Also, we might wonder on the evidence we have been given of her character whether it is likely that Aurora would be able to sleep with three young men in a week. If one cannot find evidence of a statement made in the cause and consequence of an event, we might at least seek to find it in the presence of the person offering the claim. For example if someone says they have spent the weekend in bed with a couple of women and they are energetic, athletic and charismatic, we might assume that all the evidence we need is in front of our eyes. But if the person were lethargic, physically unprepossessing and dull, maybe we would need further proof to believe their story. Now Aurora is attractive and charming, but she also seems someone we cannot easily see seducing three young men in a matter of days, and might wonder whether this is a story she tells as readily as a truth she is offering. It is as though in Rohmer's films we have within the narrative through-line characterisation that bifurcates: Aurora can be both the woman who sleeps with three men in a week and a woman who for argument's sake sleeps with the three men. Equally she can be the person who has found a man she can love; but equally a woman who may be testing Jerome by saying that she has found a man she can love. Her character is not given, it possesses ambiguities and possibilities. There is the complexity of the story, but there is within this complexity the ambiguous aspect of character also. What can seem like a begged question in a philosophical argument can in a film like Rohmer's offer a motivated question instead. The argument as story holds, but the ambiguities within it remain fruitful.
Part of the necessary ambiguity resides in the question we addressed earlier in relation to goals and problems. Though the story Rohmer tells happens to be chiefly Jerome's through Aurora, that doesn't means that Aurora won't have stratagems of her own to deal with her feelings towards other characters, and most especially Jerome. That Rohmer offers Claire as a problem rather than a goal to Jerome, might lead us to wonder about how other characters (like Aurora) negotiate a problem as opposed to a goal. If a goal is an action that generates identity in the world; in Rohmer's films often identity is created by the permutations of a problem, and one's capacity to deal with it on a virtual rather than an actual level. The actual is no more than the necessary activity that allows for the containment of the problem. If Jerome's touching of Claire's knee is not so much a goal as the minimum action required to contain the problem that Claire presents to him, can we say that the story Aurora will write is the minimum action required in relation to containing the problem of Jerome?
Of course we are making a leap here. We cannot deny that Jerome sets out to touch the knee to sublimate his feelings; we cannot say with the same certitude this is what Aurora is doing in relation to Jerome. But we may wonder about the sub-textual element of a relationship Rohmer offers with moments of tactile intimacy that in another film would indicate clearly the burgeoning development of the couple. Think of the scene for example where Jerome and Aurora sit on a bench and Jerome explains that he thinks will should have very little to do with love, and watch as he strokes Aurora's arm, and she pinches on his shirt. Think especially of the moment when Aurora breathes heavily, looks pensive and there is a silence before Jerome turns his head to Aurora, Aurora turns her head to him, and then he looks towards what turns out to be Claire and her boyfriend, and Aurora does likewise. When Aurora says at one moment she is looking for love, does she find it with the man Jerome briefly met as she claims, or is this another story for Jerome rather like the one we might choose not to believe concerning the three young men in one week? Jerome may be a complex character, but by the end of the film he has articulated that complexity. Yet perhaps part of the mystery of the film is that Aurora on the other hand remains something of a mystery to us. The film may have explained Jerome's motives with the precision of a well thought through argument, but contained within are the deliberately begged questions as sub-text of Aurora.
Yet if we are claiming Rohmer is cinematic because of his capacity for offering subtlety of body language within sub-textual stratagems, Rohmer is also a visual filmmaker. However he is visual not so much with the camera as despite it. Often filmmakers are somehow seen as less visual if they show more respect for what is in front of the camera than how they happen to use it. Rohmer's camera set-ups are rarely extravagant, rarely given to creating meaning through the camera as we can find in great filmmakers like Welles, Godard, Kubrick, Resnais and Hitchcock. Does this make him a lesser filmmaker, or simply a director with a different visual ethos? Though Rohmer co-wrote a book on Hitchcock in the fifties with Claude Chabrol, they are visually antithetical filmmakers, with Rohmer much closer to Renoir than Hitchcock in his respect for the pro-filmic, in his respect for the image's reality, over its narrative compartmentalisation. If San Francisco in Vertigo is a subjectified space reflecting both the literal and emotion acrophobia of Scottie Ferguson, in Claire's Knee and all the director's work, Rohmer doesn't want the camera to signify but more much represent. As he says in an article 'Such Vanity is Painting', "the cinema flashes a whole scene before our eyes, from which we are free to extract one of the many possible significations. This is opposed to the other arts, which go from the abstract to the concrete and which in making this quest for the concrete their goal, hide the fact that they aim not to imitate but to signify. Meaning in film is extracted from the appearances, not from the imaginary world of which appearances are only the sign."
Rohmer believes in the camera's presence as the modest mediator towards understanding reality, and reckons the real world isn't there to be transformed but to be understood. This understanding ranges from an interest in observing the idiosyncrasies of performance, to the layout of an apartment, to an interest in the story coming out of the location. When Rohmer replied to a critic who thought his films literary, Rohmer insisted, "It is true that I can write the stories I film. The proof is that I did write them long ago, before I discovered cinema. But I was not satisfied with them because I was unable to write them well enough....and when I film I try to extract as much from life as possible." ('Letter to a Critic') It isn't then the visual that Rohmer is interested in, but the living, and it is to life that Rohmer's films draw as the story emerges out of the places he documents. Though he'll occasionally use a stage set instead of an apartment (My Night at Maud's), usually Rohmer's is a combinatory aesthetic of actor, living space and geography, the supplementary elements that means that his films are filmic, but not simply visual. In Claire's Knee, the surrounding mountains are not a backdrop but a living presence the characters will describe, evident when Laura talks about their oppressive presence. When Aurora and Jerome wander through the place Jerome's selling, he comments on various paintings, books etc in the house. Rohmer offers us a shot of the house's view, in what in another filmmaker's work might seem like a gratuitous shot as Jerome walks through the door of his house and turns to look up at the mountain that looks down on his property. Rohmer leaves it as an isolated shot, uncommented upon. In each instance, whether a character comments on the mise-en-scene, or curiously and surprisingly does not, Rohmer creates space for the pro-filmically cinematic: through an interest in the location rather than dramatic visualisation.
Rohmer's interest in observational space though is intricately interwoven with his interest in problems over goals. A goal-oriented space would be more inclined to dictate the space for the furthering of the story, and ostensibly someone might claim that Jerome has two goals before he leaves and gets married: to sell the house and have one final affair. Yet the selling of the house possesses no narrative thrust, and the affair of course becomes no more than a hand on a knee. It is as if Rohmer wanted to turns goals into problems partly through locating the film, not visualising it. When he says in 'Letter to a Critic' "what I say, I do not say with words. I do not say it with images either, with all due respect to the partisans of pure cinema..." The latter suggests visualising, where Rohmer locates. This is of course partly about the very location he films in, but even more about the concentration on locating gestures, images, words, feelings, objects. If many filmmakers have a clear image hierarchy that leaves us well aware of a film's goals, Rohmer constantly asks us to muse over the problems that arise and which often we can make our own, interpret as we see fit, evident for example in the way we've chosen to analyse the body language Jerome and Aurora.
Hence, when we initially noted the film's problem residing in the gap between touch and sight, we did so to indicate the distance between the two when Jerome realises how much of an achievement it would be to touch the girl's knee, but equally how much space he gives himself to create a problem rather than a goal over its caress. The problem is much greater than the goal as Jerome seems to accept the inevitability of the married life awaiting him, but we might wonder what he has forsaken in the process. Yet if this forsaking happens to be Aurora, and Aurora forsakes him for a man she claims to love but for which we have so little evidence, then we might wonder if a further problem resides in the apparent resolution of both characters' apparent desires. Jerome gets to touch Claire's knee, and Aurora gets a story, but what the viewer surely gets is the containment of both within an enquiry into the nature of touch and sight, where two characters who seem so comfortable with each other, so easy in the touch, and expressive of feeling, do not get together come the end of the film though we may wonder whether their complicity suggests strong feelings, even love. Is this the final irony of the film: that while they can be tactile with each other, they cannot see what we see: that the viewer has the advantage of the sort of sight without touch that Jerome practises in his observing of Claire and her boyfriend?
This isn't to read the film so much as hint at the emotional complexity contained within it. As Rohmer says in 'Letter to a Critic', "There are no keys to my characters, I use no guinea pigs. As opposed to the novelist in my film...I do not discover; I combine some primary elements in small amounts as a chemist does." Rohmer's cinema, containing philosophical ideas, ethical issues and behavioural observation, is, in the best sense, experimental, and experimental because the characters are not readily knowable to themselves or others. If for example Rohmer added a coda where Jerome recognizes he is marrying the wrong woman and Aurora the wrong man, and they loved each other, this might be far too obvious for Rohmer to film, but it wouldn't be implausible within the psychological nuance and amplification Rohmer allows. In his pursuit of the problem over the goal, of an ethos that has little to do with Kantian or Social Contract morality, and an interest in the cinematically pro-filmic over the dramatically visual, Rohmer certainly tells a story, but he manages to do so in such a way that there are other stories being told within the one he chooses to tell.
© Tony McKibbin