Frame grab from Anthony Spinelli’s An Act of Confession (1972)

From desires to morals
Éric Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee as a discourse on moral deceptions
Ioannis Tsirkas

   Claire’s Knee (1970) is the fourth part of Éric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales series. In all the films of the cycle the egocentric male leads ‘invent moral principles to legitimate, before or after the fact, a chosen line of conduct’ (Shilling 2007, p.130-131). In other words, Rohmer intends to show us how an action can be justified by following a certain code of morality which is premised by the person who proceeds to such an action, wanting thus to give a meaning to it and then determine the reactions it gave rise to. Ιn this paper I will analyse philosophically the self-serving moral system that the main hero of the film, Jérôme (Jean-Claude Brialy), invents for himself in order to justify his controversial actions. Through the analysis of certain significant dialogues of the film —dialogues are the raw material of Rohmer’s cinema in general— and by focusing οn the notion of desire as it is perceived by Jérôme in the main body of my essay, I will try to generalise in my conclusions aiming to point out what the film has to offer as a philosophical discourse on the subject of the self-serving morality. Before my main analysis follow, I have to mention that a sufficient familiarity of the reader with the text of the film as well as the filmic work of Éric Rohmer in general is nevertheless premised in order to be aware of some of the notions that the director develops in the majority of his films and the context by which he chooses to give prominence to some of his philosophical ideas.

Monday, June 29th
   After meeting Aurora (Aurora Cornu) by chance, Jérôme says to her that everything is possible. However, Claire’s Knee has been considered by John Fawel (1993, p.778) as ‘a gently cruel’ film because it reflects the exact opposite of it. Jérôme will face certain impossibilities during the next days that will force him to deceive himself with chimerical ideas (Cardullo 2004, p.290) in order to overcome them. They will be impossibilities relative to his desire which Éric Rohmer represented ‘in a way that is sympathetic to human weaknesses’ (Leigh 2012, p.44). As Matthew Thorpe (2014, p.58) proposes, the theme of ‘self-deception’ and ‘circumscribed perspective’ manifests in the film as Jérôme’s effectual ‘rationalization of his desires in a cerebral, creative, self-deceptive’ and ‘self-directed hermeneutics’. Thus Fawel’s oxymoron is rather justifiable.
   When he meets Laura (Béatrice Romand) for the first time, she declares that she never cries in front of others while this is also something that will be contradicted during the next days. The film is full of —mainly inner—contradictions and especially moral ones. Jérôme’s comment is that when he sees a girl crying it renders him utterly helpless, especially if she is pretty. Only unattractive girls deserve to cry for him or at least they do not constitute a threat to him, they do not render him utterly helpless. They seem to be rather helpless to him, manageable, and thus harmless. Furthermore, his response to Aurora’s ironical assumption that he makes only the ugly ones cry is that this is not true concerning both the ugly and the pretty ones. Even if he says the truth —Jérôme’s fidelity will be proved ‘too easy and self-serving’ (Haskell 2006) soon— or not he will nevertheless make Claire (Laurence de Monaghan), a certainly pretty girl, to cry in order to achieve an unaccustomed goal. He possibly does not make pretty girls cry in general, not out of obedience in a moral code, but because he does not find a sufficiently useful reason, or because he considers himself unable to manage such a thing. Actually, as it will be manifested, his morality is being determined mainly by what is possible and useful.

Tuesday, June 30th
   Jérôme, discussing with Aurora about his decision to marry soon contradicting thus his past views confesses that, since experience has shown to him that he can live with his future wife, he is just consenting to a fact which he acknowledges by not enforcing rules to himself. When something pleases him he does it for pleasure. The factuality of pleasure determined by chance is being reconfirmed as measure of his morality.

Sunday, July 5th
   Laura’s mother, Madame Walter (Michèle Montel), discussing with Jérôme, Laura and a friend of hers, says to them that she does not like living at the foot of the mountain, because it makes her feel uneasy. Its majesty stifles her. Laura disagrees by supporting that a mountain appears more beautiful when it is viewed right from its base. When Jérôme meets Claire her impressive beauty will stifle and make him feel uneasy too. However, Rohmer’s interest in beauty as problem for somebody’s equanimity (McKibbin 2014) will be explicit when Jérôme begin reflecting on Claire’s charm as it is nevertheless implied in the above dialogue. You can apprehend the height and beauty of a mountain either from its top or its foot in the same way that you can perceive someone’s mystique either when it happens he or her to be under your charm or not. However, as it will be proved, when Jérôme does not feel in a position of power in relation to a woman or girl who attracts him, she impresses him more. He mainly desires the ones who seem more difficult to get impressed by him, to possess them. Even if he does not participate in the dialogue to express his opinion we can imagine that he agrees with Laura in that when you reach the top of a mountain it maybe loses some of its majesty in your perception. Besides, Rohmer had admitted that he was interested in the contradiction ‘between what is purely desired and only desired’ and ‘what is possessed’ in the film, wanting to demonstrate though it that the object of desire ‘is not necessarily the object of possession’ (Nogueira 2012, p.23). However, this metaphorical dialogue functions just as a sign of what will be demonstrated in the rest of the film, namely that what is usually desired the most is exactly almost impossible to be possessed.

Monday, July 6th
   The next day Jérôme and Laura, after hours of hiking, are on the top of a mountain; at its nicest spot, according to her. It is where he tries for the final time to kiss her. She rejects him. Despite his reaching the top of the mountain Laura will remain out of reach.

Sunday, July 12th
   Claire picks cherries with his boyfriend Gilles (Gérard Falconetti) from a tree in the garden of her home. Jérôme approaches them and they throw some in his hat. As she is up on the ladder he notices her bare feet. As Rohmer himself had admitted (Barron 2012, p.78-79) this scene is influenced by an incident that Jean-Jacques Rousseau had narrated himself. He had once gone with some young girls to pick cherries at the same area that the home in the film is, namely at the Annecy of the south-eastern France, and while he was up on a tree he was throwing cherries down onto the young girls’ breasts. On the contrary Jérôme is standing at the foot of the tree watching what he mostly desires and thinks that is not able to have. 

Friday, July 17th
   Jérôme confesses to Aurora that he is interested in Claire, because she intrigues him and disturbs his character just by the way she looks. She is ‘a figure of sight and not of touch’ (McKibbin 2014) in his phantasy[1]. He admits to Aurora that he feels absolutely powerless when he is surrounded by girls like that. Claire thus constitutes a problem for him (McKibbin 2014). As he also mentions Claire arouses a desire in him that is real, but without purpose and it tends to become stronger exactly because of it. It is a pure desire, a desire without target. He does not want to act on it, but it bothers him to feel it. Until now he is making hypotheses about his feelings rather than attempting to detect the motives which dictate his imminent actions (McKibbin 2014). He is first and foremost interested to talk about his desire as a way to appease it (Crisp 1988, p.64). He expresses his desire for Claire to Aurora through speech, while he will not dare to express it through his body to Claire herself. As Gilles Mouëllic (2007, cited in Leigh 2012, p.271) underlines, in Rohmer’s films ‘[d]esire expressed by the body often contradicts the character’s statements’ since the body is not controllable; the body expresses the truth of a desire that speech denies to express. Although he supports that he does not even really want her and that if she had thrown herself at him he would reject her, this constitutes a certainly false claim. He is just unable, powerless to seduce her, to overturn her indifference. His bodily desire for her is doomed to remain unexpressed since seduction is exactly ‘the method by which desire exposes itself towards the one it wishes to reach’ (Tortajada 230, p.230). Like Laura, Claire will remain out of reach too. Jérôme continues by supporting that even though he does not want her he feels he has some sort of claim on her. A claim born from the very strength of his desire. Such are his morals: the fact that he is not able to resist to the desire that she arouses on him, that its strength is more intense than that of his resistance, this fact offers him a claim on her. The turmoil she arouses in him gives him a sort of right over her. He believes that he has the right to demand something from her or at least something from himself relative to her. Thus according to him we deserve everything that we are unable to resist to and since, as he says, he is convinced he deserves her more than anyone, so for this pure reason he will not hesitate to venture something that he considers as not at all immoral, to touch her knee. So instead of being a ‘moral peril’ (Jones 1981, p.4) Claire’s knee will become an object which would signal his own notion of morality.
   Jérôme reveals to Aurora his odd aspiration by recounting the previous day at the tennis court. He was watching the loving couple of Claire and Gilles while thinking that every woman has her most vulnerable point. For some it is the nape of the neck, the waist or the hands, but for Claire —in that position, in that light— it was her knee. This was the magnetic pole of his desire, the precise point where he would have placed his hand if he could pursue this desire. When Aurora suggests him that the simplest solution would be to place his hand over her knee in order to exorcise his desire he demurs that this would not be simple at all, but contrariwise it would be the hardest thing for him to do since a caress has to be accepted. So he has to find a way, a proper way for Claire to succumb willingly to his caress on her knee. As Moly Haskell (2006) has interpreted his desire, ‘[t]hat 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’. However, Jérôme is not a fetishist, since this obsession of him arises from the intellectualization of his desire (Crisp 1988, p.64). The touching of Claire’s knee has namely for him a ‘symbolic value’ (Leigh 2012, p.44). However, as Daniel Hayes (2005) observes ‘[t]he film’s use of the metaphor of the knee is somewhat indeterminate, and one’s interpretation of its meaning will likely reflect more on one’s own experiences than on Rohmer’s intent’. As about Rohmer’s intentions he had stated about his character Jérôme that
‘from the woman who, to his sense of sight, appears the most desirable, he wants nothing, or only something extremely symbolic. Ultimately, touching her knee is simply a way of being able to say “I touched it,” like children when they’re playing tag . . . Possession for him adds nothing to desire. On the contrary, his desire feeds on the absence of possession. That’s what satisfies him. It’s not an unusual state, and there’s nothing morbid about it’ (Nogueira 2012, p.24).
Jérôme wants nothing from Claire exactly because she is the object of his innermost desire. He knows that he would not be able to expect anything from her side and thus he confines himself to his desire, to aim at just touching her knee, one of the most approachable and at the same time beautiful parts of her body, but within the limits of his reach. The touching of her knee will symbolize exactly his reaching of her; it will stand as the proof of her approachability to him. According to his moral code, he feels that he has the right to do everything that he both desires and is able to do with the permission of the other. Even if he would possibly desire more from Claire, knowing that what he could only have is her knee, he allows himself to desire only this in the end which in its turn becomes his only right. Instead of his desires being confined by his morals he uses his morals as a way to form his desires in a self-deceiving manner in order to feel that he is not deprived of anything. He namely chooses to give the most convenient for his self-complacency and self-righteousness meaning to his gestures. His desires do not proceed to their fulfilment or non-fulfilment, but they are incipiently formed by his estimations about the potentiality of their fulfilment. As Jacob Leigh (2012, p.44) mentions Jérôme ‘chooses the knee partly to minimize the likelihood of failure’. It constitutes namely the ‘minimum action required to contain the problem that Claire presents to him’ (McKibbin 2014). However, maybe in its essence his longing to touch Claire’s knee functions less as a test of his ego and his capacity to conquer her than a try of his will and by extension his capacity to overcome an aspect of his own self (McKibbin 2014). More specifically, the possible approval of his gesture will mean the obtainment of a sign that his charm still operates (Bonitzer 1991, p.116). Jérôme will namely aim to what he considers as obtainable in order to fulfil his desire for something unobtainable confirming his vanity through the use of an incoherent morality, incoherent through its coinciding with everything that is within the realm of both his desire and its potentiality. In this way his morality stands more as a metre of his self-limits rather than constituting his self-limits themselves.

Monday, July 20th
   Three days later Jérôme discusses once again with Aurora about Claire. He reminds to her that if she were to come to him he would turn her down. He would like to turn her down following thus his own choice. However, it has been his misfortune that whenever he desired a woman he never got her. All his conquests until now have come as surprise. Desire was always following possession. It is being confirmed thus that he does not really desire Claire, but he is just offended by what her indifference to him represents. Even his denial to attempt to do any further thing with her except for touching her knee signals his repression to fully recognise and accept that he is not desired by her. What he essentially wants is to avoid the repetition of the past misfortunes he mentions to Aurora. Through the moralistic mechanism he has already developed, that of a safe and deliberate passivity, he has managed to avoid any bad surprises relative to his desire for women by eliminating the possibility of any bad surprise, or in other words, the possibility his desire for a woman not to be followed by her possession. For him it is desire that follows possession instead of the opposite. At the same time, in his case, morality follows desire instead of desire following morality. On this manner morality follows possession instead of the reverse. Due to this perverse contrivance his morality is actually shaped on the one hand by his image about his seductive abilities and on the other by pure chance. It is a morality which denies inherent meanings in gestures; Jérôme accepts only the immanence of his desires in relation to himself.

Tuesday, July 28th
   Jérôme narrates to Aurora the way he succeeded to touch Claire’s knee. Earlier on that day he had revealed to her that he had seen her boyfriend, Gilles, kissing a girl in Annecy in the afternoon though he had told her that he would be in Grenoble. This caused the unstoppable tears of Claire. He says to Aurora that he is sure that at that moment she surely hates him. If he had tried to touch her or said a word she would have cried asking him to leave her alone. So he just sat there for a while feeling very awkward and at the same time pleased that he had landed his blow but appalled by his own behaviour. He declares that he was ashamed to have made her cry, or rather, that he felt ashamed for hers breaking down before a stranger. It embarrassed him all the more since he felt that she would reject his consolation. He was thinking that she would never let him take her hand or her shoulder, or hold her tight. So she sat facing him with her one leg being stretched out and the other bent. He describes her knee as sharp, narrow, smooth, delicate, but more importantly within reach, within the reach of his hand; he only had to extend his arm to touch it. It would have been reckless to do it; it was the only thing he should not do and yet the easiest one in the world. However, even if he knew the way and how easy and simple it would be it felt impossible as well. He compares it with the feeling of being one step from the edge of a cliff, where even if you want to jump, you cannot. It was a moment when he had to take a pivotal decision, a moment actually before a decision; in Rohmer’s words a kind of ‘suspension of time, of silence, of indecision’ (Yakir 2012, p.89). It took him a great deal of courage to do something so dicey or at least so wilful. He considers that it was the only time he had ever had the chance to accomplish an act of pure will. He had never felt so strongly that he was doing something that had to be done. So in the end he put his hand on her knee in one quick move that did not give her the needed time to react. The precision of his gesture prevented her from parrying it. She simply stared at him indifferently with a little trace of hostility without nevertheless saying anything. She did not push him away or move her leg, but if he would have caressed her with a finger or tried to stroke her brow she would certainly draw herself back. What ensured the success of his caress was that his gesture was unexpected. She would probably think that it was the beginning of an attack which never came so she felt reassured. Finally, he concludes that since Claire needed a lesson and that it was he who ought to open her eyes, he calls what he did as the good deed of the day; he believes that after all he did her some good: what he considered to be a gesture of desire she regarded it as a gesture of consolation. A ‘sophist to the end’ (Haskell 2006), he is sure that the results of his behaviour are highly moral. On the one hand he thinks that he got her away from his bad boyfriend for good and on the other that he is no longer obsessed with the girl’s body. It is as if he had had her. He is satisfied. He even thinks ‘with an ill-deserved sense of satisfaction’ (Haskell 2006) that he could have not experienced such perfect pleasure if it were not for the good deed he was doing.
   Although Jérôme certainly cares at least to be able to present his actions as harmless the possibility of not being such was not what really frightened him in Claire’s case. What first and foremost was frightening him was the possibility to fail at what he attempted. He calls his act as one of pure will because its only goal was to confirm that he was able to make it happen. What was compromised was not his moral integrity, but the integrity of his being itself. Claire’s little traces of hostility while he was taking delight in the touching of her knee at the same time when she was crying do not constitute at all flaws which would overshadow his success. What matters for him is that his gesture of pure desire has been perceived by Claire as a gesture of consolation. This matters in order his moral system not to be proved vulnerable since this would entail that the vulnerability of the potentiality of his desires would be easily satisfied too. His consideration of the results of his behaviour as highly moral is thus indeed a sophistry. In conclusion, he is absolutely satisfied at the end because he managed to confront both the significant threat that his failure would introduce to his pure satisfaction and the threat of something going wrong according to his moral system.

Wednesday, July 29th
   Aurora informs Jérôme just before he leave that she is engaged with someone and not free as he had thought. While he is away Gilles comes to see Claire and she accepts his excuses concerning the previous day, so after a brief and mild conflict they are reconciled. So Jérôme is proved at the end to be misguided about many issues, but for this reason he departs from his holiday entirely self-confident and believing that he himself is ‘absolutely innocent of any wrongdoing’ (Tester 2008, p.103).

   Through Éric Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee the potential self-interest of any morality is being demonstrated. Every desire proffers its fulfillment. The role of any moral system is to offer the intervening limits needed when somebody attempts for any desire’s fulfillment or even to form the nature of desires themselves. Jérôme’s moral system was self-sought in every respect. What he was seeking in it was pretexts in order to immunize only the acceptance of the desires which he would be able to fulfill. His morality instead of determining what had to be considered as possible for him was on the contrary determined by everything he considered as impossible. His morality was in the service of his desires. His self-deception lies in that instead of recognizing the inherent contradictions within any summation of desires he was struggling to eliminate through sophistries. Nevertheless, it was these sophistries that offered him sufficient consolation since after all morality is a system able to be linguistically encoded. He does not just pursue to enforce the most convenient rules to himself, but to form himself in a way that he would be able to work through it by following the most convenient ones. The main threat of his moral truth was everything that was considered by him as out of reach. Morality is ultimately a system of control of our power against the others. Following this perspective as pure deed is calculated everything that its fulfillment does not overturn the entelechy of this balance by not having inherent meaning. Jérôme believes that he deserves anything that he is unable to resist to while his inability for resistance is what generates his obsessions. Jérôme’s moral law is on the service of what helps him not to lose any trace of his dignity because of the inadequacy of his potentiality. Every time this moral law is premised it symbolizes something by which he is unable to escape. Through the touching of Claire’s knee he managed to sublimate what his reaching was signifying without soiling his morality.

[1] As Rohmer had declared, he believed that ‘there is a type of woman who is made to be looked at and another type who is made to . . . be touched. All the senses cannot be satisfied by the same object’ (Nogueira 2012, p.23-24).

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