“Why would I tie myself to one woman if I were interested in others?” says Jerôme, even as he plans on marrying a diplomat’s daughter by summer’s end. Before then, Jerôme spends his July at a lakeside boardinghouse nursing crushes on the sixteen-year-old Laura and, more tantalizingly, Laura’s long-legged, blonde stepsister, Claire. Baring her knee on a ladder under a blooming cherry tree, Claire unwittingly instigates Jerôme’s moral crisis and creates both one of French cinema’s most enduring moments and what has become the iconic image of Rohmer’s Moral Tales.
It’s both hard and not so hard to believe that Eric Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales” were conceived—indeed, written initially—as a novel. On the one hand, he’s the grand master of dialogue as an instrument of narrative. His characters muse, reflect, analyze, insult, tease, provoke, skirmish, flirt, philosophize, lie, in an endless round of glittering verbal maneuvers that constitute the late twentieth century’s most literate tales of love, our latter-day Liaisons dangereuses. On the other, the actors seem too perfectly cast, as if they’d been the models for the characters, not the other way around, and Rohmer had used what we know and sense about them to shape roles that seem to emanate from their very skins and psyches. And then there’s the incandescent (and sometimes underrated) imagery—the precise locations, the crucial weather, the endlessly variable expressions of the human face and body, all those seductive surfaces that raise crucial questions about the “morals” that are the heart of the stories and that are analogous to the spell cast by cinema itself, the ruthless geometry of choice and the royalty of sex appeal at the heart of its addictive power.
A girl in a bikini whose coltlike body is dissected as she walks along the water’s edge at the beginning of La collectionneuse (1967); the camera forsaking its neutrality in My Night at Maud’s (1969) to focus on the wittily inviting Françoise Fabian, lying under a fur coverlet as thick and white as the snow outside; Love in the Afternoon’s (1972) happily married Bernard having fantasies about the damsels he encounters in the streets of Paris. And of the six tales, none seems more indigenous to cinema than Claire’s Knee (1970), the joint in question, that of a pretty blonde teenager on a ladder, becoming the fulcrum of an exquisite dissertation on the perversity of desire. The idea and the image are one, forever circling and intertwined in these exquisite meditations on the anomalies of attraction, which seem to be all about the female of the species, even when the central figure, the desiring and rationalizing protagonist, is male.
Of all the (mostly European, or non-American) directors truly interested in women—that is, who put them repeatedly at the center of their work—none has been so fascinated by the spectrum of womankind, and girlkind (a separate breed in Rohmer, and rightly so), and examined our sex with such a fine mixture of dispassion and empathy. Other directors—indeed, male artists in general—when free to express their own sensibilities, almost can’t help foisting their neuroses onto women: they give us femmes fatales who bear the burden of male sexual guilt, pathetic victims whose humiliation provides a salve to the male ego or a target for his rage, idealizations whose beauty confirms their discoverers’ own good taste. But Rohmer goes deeper, examining and gently mocking those very processes, the unconscious strategies by which men use women for their own practical, moral, and artistic purposes.
In My Night at Maud’s, Jean-Louis Trintignant’s character, a practicing Catholic and a bit of a prig, gives women credit for his moral education. “Women aid my spiritual progress,” he says to Maud, and is immediately half-ashamed by the fatuousness of the remark. “I don’t look at the ladies anymore . . . I’m getting married,” says Jean-Claude Brialy’s Jérôme, in Claire’s Knee, when he runs into his old friend Aurora. This is less a vow of chastity than a protective device, avoiding future entanglement should Aurora get any ideas . . . and indeed, he very soon violates his own pledge. The young man (Barbet Schroeder) in The Bakery Girl of Monceau (1962), while committed to another, is attracted to the pretty working girl but also irritated that she doesn’t have “the easygoing quality that would have eased my conscience.” Meaning: to deal blithely with the one-night stand I’d like to have. In the second Moral Tale, Suzanne’s Career (1963), the nerdy pharmacy student needs to despise and constantly belittle Suzanne (he’s attracted to her) in order to retain his male bona fides, which involves the continuing hero worship of the womanizing Guillaume. But in the end, Suzanne wins, because she deprives him of “the right to pity her.”The wills of Rohmer’s protagonists are foiled and their prejudices unmasked—for us if not always for them—by women who, through their cunning or their simple directness, elude their theoretical categories, even (or especially) when they are lower in the social or intellectual order than the men who presume to toy with them.
In Claire’s Knee, set in a shimmering July on Lake Annecy, near the Swiss border, a whole array of Rohmer “types” are on display. The novelist Aurora is one of his worldly women: with too much time, like all of Rohmer’s dangerously ennui-filled vacationers, she assumes the mischievous role of puppeteer, hoping to gather material for a novel by pushing Jérôme, a diplomat whose fiancée is in Sweden, into an affair with the younger Laura. Having had her own amorous leanings toward younger men, Aurora will thereby enjoy from a writerly distance those feelings—acted upon or held in check—she herself has experienced. This fifth Moral Tale follows the pattern of the others in showing a man already committed to one woman tempted by another, only here, Jérôme’s absent fiancée has two teenage rivals.
As Laura, the pawn who refuses to be one, the precocious, bushy-haired enchantress Béatrice Romand is one of Rohmer’s greatest finds. Wise beyond her years, Laura does indeed fall for the older man, suffers the delights and torments of love with an eloquence that far surpasses, in candor and intensity and the sheer poetry of her soul, the niggardly sensibility of her casually lecherous suitor. Her mirror opposite, and eventual usurper in Jérôme’s fancy, is her half sister, Claire (Laurence de Monaghan), she of the knee, one of those knockout blondes who grow less rather than more interesting with time. Claire is a type—“I find it quite difficult to talk to her,” Jérôme admits to Aurora. “I feel absolutely powerless around girls like that.” Which is precisely what attracts this rather conventional womanizer, who usually knows in advance that a certain woman desires him and pursues accordingly. This sort of safe philosophy of love is a characteristic of Rohmer’s complacent males, but the commitment that goes with it can’t be summarily dismissed.
That’s the complexity and the paradox of Rohmer’s radical conservatism: characters’ beliefs must be tested, stretched, but belief itself, whether of the Catholic variety or a commitment to monogamy, represents at its best an integrity that is in opposition to the casual sex enjoyed and promoted by his other, sometimes more attractive, characters. We find our sympathies uneasily shifting: Perhaps the brilliant and provocative woman is a little too brilliant and provocative—or maybe not. Maybe the lesser woman, the “safe bet,” entails the subordination of one’s immediate desires to some greater ideal, a beyond-the-self. Or maybe it doesn’t.
For Rohmer, dull-seeming fidelity can occupy a higher moral plane than the transitory thrills of promiscuity, especially if that dull-seeming fidelity rediscovers in itself a passionate affirmation of marital love, as in Love in the Afternoon, where this yes-to-marriage is made all the more moving by an accompanying marked sense of loss. Jérôme’s brand of fidelity, on the other hand, is too easy and self-serving, his yearnings too tepid, for this kind of Rohmerian epiphany. Nevertheless, through him we see some part of ourselves, image fetishists, drawn perversely to glittering but unsuitable love objects, fixating on the part at the expense of the whole. That small piece of epidermal real estate on an innocuously pretty blonde becomes the focus of an obsession that blots out the glorious child-womanliness that is Laura, and finally, even the insipid Claire shows a certain spirit, obstinately preferring her unfaithful boyfriend to Jérôme. A sophist to the end, he sees his brutish behavior and his “consoling” caress of the knee as a “good deed” and leaves the scene with an ill-deserved sense of satisfaction.
At one point earlier in the film, Laura and Jérôme are discussing love, the latter’s six-year engagement and sense of that relationship’s inevitability. He and his lady friend’s repeated breakups and accidental reencounters have come to feel like predestination, always an important theme in Rohmer; what’s more, the pair are amicable and nonpossessive, they get along—a seriously unromantic view of love that repels Laura even as she despises what love does to her. Glancing at a photograph of the fiancée, Laura says the boyish-looking woman is not what she would have expected. “Lucinde isn’t my type physically,” Jérôme agrees, then, “Though I don’t really have a type. Looks don’t matter to me. It’s the character alone that counts.” This self-serving piety, typical of Rohmer’s deluded protagonists, will be quickly disproved when he finds himself attracted to the fetching Claire, and to a knee that has little to do with moral fiber. It is Laura who articulates the first principle of the Rohmerian world, the connection between outer and inner selves, when she replies, “But the character shows in how a person looks.” (“Perhaps style is more important than beauty,” says one woman to another in La collectionneuse, as they puzzle over what it is in a person that pleases them.) How does beauty or ugliness, virtue or immorality, shape personality? The epiphanies occur when the moral and the physical intersect, when the stubborn integrity of a character suddenly bursts furiously forth, irradiating the face and the landscape with the force of a revelation.
In fact, in Rohmer’s universe, women are instruments of men’s improvement, in the sense that they shake them up, force them to confront prejudices; and in some of his films, men do the same to women. Attraction enlarges and expands us, takes us out of our comfort zone and into the unknown, thanks to someone who surprises our preconceptions, forces us to radically readjust categories and criteria. An intellectual may be attracted to a girl with whom he can’t discuss Pascal or Dostoyevsky; that does not make her an object of ridicule. Possibly she will be fresher and more interesting, less chock-full of ready-made formulations, than he is. But on some level, she must be able to account for herself, leave a verbal signature.
Not being able to talk would be a fatal obstacle, like not being able to act in an action film. In the Rohmerian world, talk is action, talk is eros, the springboard of his stories; and the “talkiness” of his movies is no less cinematic—it moves, exposes and conceals, shows the drama of choice as it is being made, imagines its terrible and wonderful consequences. At the same time, the fates of his characters remain open-ended, subject to further choices and conversations. The possibilities multiply through the sheer range of women in whom Rohmer interests himself: shopgirls and secretaries, those figures on the margins of most directors’ consciousness, move front and center, have problems as deserving of close attention as party girls and divas and more cerebral professionals. He’s as interested (almost) in mothers as in ingenues.
A corollary of this, and one of the great delights of the movies—nowhere more in evidence than in Claire’s Knee—is the relationships among the women. Love-struck females are saved from the total dependency of so many love stories by their bonds with other women. No other director has taken such a voyeur’s relish in those deeply nurturing and furtive ties. Girls exchange secrets and advice, quarrel and make up; and girls stick up for each other, sometimes heroically, in the face of male intimidation. The mother and daughter in Claire’s Knee enjoy a bickering, loving, and mutually supportive (and acutely observed) relationship that is at the heart of Laura’s healthy and original sense of herself, and her need to stay sane. Laura, the mother’s girl who has grown up fatherless, and Claire, a daddy’s girl, are half sisters who might have hated each other but have come to live in close and comradely appreciation of each other’s complementary strengths and weaknesses.
Author and critic Molly Haskell was a longtime staff writer for the Village Voice, New York magazine, and Vogue. She has also written extensively for the New York Times, Esquire, the Nation, the Guardian, and the New York Review of Books. She is currently appearing on Turner Classic Movies’ The Essentials. Her books include From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies and Holding My Own in No Man’s Land: Women and Men and Films and Feminists.