Sunday, August 01, 2010

Claire's Knee (Eric Rohmer), Jenifer (Dario Argento)

Two erotic tales

(Warning: plot discussed in close detail)

Sunny perfection. What makes Le genou de Claire (Claire's Knee, Eric Rohmer, 1970) so funny are Jerome's (Jean Claude Brialy) elaborate declarations defending and justifying his position. If you take what he says seriously he's the most moral, most sophisticated man with the noblest aspirations; when you watch him he's a middle-aged creep who doesn't know what to do with himself around normal teenagers. Matched up with the young Laura (Beatrice Romand) he's easily outmatched--she radiates a sensitivity and common sense that quickly outs his hypocrisy; she even knows how to deal with an infatuation, even her own (sit it in a corner and make it behave itself, basically). 

Molly Haskell in her Criterion essay has harsh or at least condescending words for Claire herself (Laurence de Monaghan), "one of those knockout blondes who grow less rather than more interesting with time." Claire is certainly less eloquent than her stepsister Laura and possibly less complex, but she and her tall Nordic boyfriend enjoy what one might call the rude vitality and confidence of health--that, more than any superficial prettiness, gives Claire her appeal. I think it's possible to view her the way Nabokov viewed his Dolores Haze--young, crude, impossibly energetic, shallow, yes, and full of ridiculous enthusiasms, but in the end a soul, one capable of sensitivity and insight and even deserving of love, as evidenced by Humbert's epiphany during the last few pages of the heartbreaking novel. 

I think there's a bit of a mystery in the film's climactic scene--just what was going through Claire's mind, anyway? She must know the man is having some kind of unwholesome moment with her knee, why does she allow it? Is she so full of her grief that she just doesn't notice--or doesn't care? Is she submitting to him in her defeat? Is there some awareness in her and for whatever reason she allows his liberties--perhaps (in a perversely masochistic way) enjoys it? Or is this a fantasy pieced together out of Jerome's fevered imagination? It's an uncomfortable moment, but--for the men in the audience anyway--an eroticized one that puts many a scene of explicit onscreen acrobatics to shame with its mystery, complexity, intriguing dash of grotesquerie.

It's a tribute to Rohmer's self-effacing style, I suppose, that one has a tendency to talk more of characters and narrative than of cinematic technique when talking of his films, though of course that's the most difficult technique of all to achieve. The pace may appear languid, but if you look closely, the editing is really that of a comedy--exact and lively. There's something offhand about the blocking and lighting--you might think of a video production, with a handheld camera--but there's also a precision to the camerawork hidden beneath all that casualness (the problem, for example, of lighting and shooting two seated figures for the film's climax--in less-than-perfect weather, at that, on a location that's not fully indoors, nor entirely outdoors). Legendary cinematographer Nestor Almendros developed his sunshine technique with Rohmer, a technique that avoids most shadows, most melodramatic effects, and is therefore that much more subtle. Even the storm at the film's climax is of a specific character--ever threatening, never entirely manifesting, putting out more of a sad drizzle than a serious downpour. A great film, all the greater for its delicacy and souffle-light humor (and elusive sense of melancholy).

Dario Argento's Jenifer could be considered the polar opposite of Rohmer's masterwork. Easy to put Argento down in favor of Rohmer, but I think both Argento and Rohmer like to take humor and sensuality and put them to extreme use, at either end of the tonal spectrum. Argento takes Bruce Jones and Bernie Wrightson's ten-page classic and turns it into a lurid big-screen comic-book (as Argento in an interview notes, this is hardly made for the small cable TV screen) with Wrightson's extreme camera angles accompanying Argento's deep color palette (the original comic was black and white, with striking shadow-work).

There is subtlety to be found here, despite the premise (girl with monstrous face and heavenly body seduces police officer). Steve Weber, who plays the police officer and adapted the story, notes that the actress (Carrie Anne Fleming) during the first few days she wore the makeup acted quiet and depressed--she wasn't used to looking so ugly. Then she came to realize that her effect on people hadn't diminished--if anything, it intensified. The actress discovered what Argento knew all along, that a combination of the sensual and  the horrific has an unholy power all its own.

I can't recall Argento ever doing something quite like this--in most of his films, beautiful women are victims; if they aren't then they're evil succubi, but they're not visibly monstrous. Adapting Jenifer into a short film helps him I suspect explore the connection between beauty and horror in a new, more integrated way. "That head on that body!" a mental hospital staff exclaims (Argento is not one to avoid putting things explicitly); then you have a later scene where the woman bends over her lover, her body outlined through her thin dress, her haunches shifting slowly, sensually. You don't see her face or breasts (always a jaw-dropping juxtaposition), but you feel the collision of both qualities, and you're accordingly disturbed.

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