Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Not Terribly Dangerous Liaisons: Cold, Cerebral Decadence in Eric Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee

*This post contains spoilers about Claire’s Knee*
Poster for Claire's Knee, featuring the titular knee.
The aristocrats of pre-revolutionary France were a decadent bunch, and now they they’re safely dead and can no longer oppress the peasantry, they can serve as a source of guiltless delight for us.  Of the French literary productions of that period, few have exerted such a continual fascination down the ages as Choderlos de Laclos’s 1782 epistolary novel Les Liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisions; for some reason it sounds cooler in French).  Let me say right off the bat that I have not read Dangerous Liaisons, nor do I have a good reason for not doing so.  It’s just never occurred to me, while at a bookstore or library, to pursue de Laclos’s book.  But I know what it’s about!  Because it’s become almost a rule of thumb at this point that every filmmaker worth his or her salt has to make an adaptation of the book: Stephen Frears did a 1988 film called Dangerous Liaisons, Miloš Forman did an ’89 film called Valmont, E J-yong did a Choseon-era adaptation called Untold Scandal in 2003, and just last year Hur Jin-ho did a version set in 1930’s Shanghai (future line of inquiry: why are the Koreans so fond of Dangerous Liaisions?)  There must be something eminently cinematic about de Laclos’s book, which is somewhat surprising given its epistolary structure (at least, I’ve never heard of anyone trying to adapt Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa for the big screen [Note: The BBC apparently turned it into a TV series in the early ‘90’s starring Sean Bean of all people]).
Pierre Ambroise François Choderlos de Laclos, author if Les Liaisons dangereuses.
I’m getting off track here, I want to talk about Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee, which I just saw this evening.  I bring up de Laclos’s book because Rohmer’s film strikes me as being Dangerous Liaisons-lite.  So, what is Dangerous Liaisons about? It follows the depraved machinations of the Marquise de Merteiul and her ex-lover, the Vicomte de Valmont, who seek vengeance and amusement by trying to debauch and humiliate two innocent young people.  In Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee, the fifth of his six “Moral Tales,” Merteuil and Valmont find their counterparts in Aurora and Jérome, a novelist and diplomat, respectively, former lovers spending their summer at Lake Annecy in eastern France.  Aurora is staying with a divorced woman and her teenage daughter, Laura, whom she convinces Jérome to romance because she thinks it would make a good story.  Jérome, who is going to be married at the end of the summer, half-heartedly charms the young girl while insinuating himself into her family life.  When things with Laura fizzle out, Jérome turns his attention to her newly arrived step-sister, Claire (she of the knee).  Claire is strikingly pretty, if not terribly interesting (Laura is far more interesting as a person), and Jérome develops what can only be described as a fetish for Claire’s knee (as he pompously explains it to Aurora, every woman has a weak point through which one can gain access to her whole person: her hands, her waist, the nape of her neck; the key spot on Claire is her kneecap).  Unfortunately for Jérome, Claire has a boyfriend, a muscular, moronic tough guy named Gilles, and Jérome—a middle-aged man with a career and a fiancée, let’s not forget—sets about destroying their late-teenage relationship in order to gain access to Claire’s knee, for purposes of his own satisfaction and the pleasure of recounting the “conquest” to Aurora.

Now, what’s striking about Aurora and Jérome is how inoffensive they seem for most of the movie.  They may be shallow and pretentious, but Christ, who isn’t? And they’re certainly charming people.  And they’re not trying to “destroy” people like their ancient régime analogues.  But what makes them progressively more sinister is how completely oblivious they are to the harm that their actions cause other people.  They may be jaded adults for whom love and sex are just games, but Laura and Claire, as passionate young people, still take these things seriously.  It’s not a game for them, it’s quite real; and the emotional damage of Jérome’s depredations is going to be real.  But at the conclusion of the film, not only does Jérome not realize that he’s an asshole, but he actually thinks that his successful touching of Claire’s knee (which he facilitated by convincing her that Gilles was cheating on her, which he was, but it wasn’t Jérome’s place to tell her) is actually a “good deed,” because he separated her from an asshole like Gilles.  Jérome reveals himself to be a real smug, self-satisfied prick, and Aurora just chuckles knowingly at him, because she’s no better.

There are still Mertueiuls and Valmonts among us, and although the stakes may not be as high as they were in de Laclos’s time, the jaded and the heartless still take vicious delight in harming the young and the sincere.

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