Films From Fair to Middling

at the Abbey Taking Off at the Cheri Sweet Sweetback's Baadasss Song at the Music Hall

I Watching films regularly can be a chore, no matter how beloved. And, given the current state of the art and product, it's difficult keeping open to new possibilities without allowing a tide of garbage to jade one's eye and soul. The three films under consideration have each aroused great quanta of controversy. Each, however, is in its own way so dulling, that dismissal would seem the proper treatment were one not committed otherwise. Thus, be forewarned that all the values named are relative.

II., I had just seem Claire's Knee, and had reported to a friend that it was basically a bunch of socialized people on holiday, talking at each other. "Of course," said he, "all Rohmer's films are about civilization. . . ."

Bunk. Statements like these are numerous, and I'm sure Rohmer would deny them. The ex- Cahiers critic seems to me a clever entertainer whose forte is literary quotation, varying in thought quality and amusement value.

Because of Pascal, Francoise Fabian, and a well-structured set of surprises and coincidences. My Night at Maud's was one of last year's freshest films. The film did depend on the premise that isolated beliefs could determine a man's psychology and philosophy, but the incredibly dull Clermont-Ferrand setting. and the background of the characters, added some depth to this view. One is always willing to grant a director his assumptions so long as they are used for pertinent ends, and because Rohmer's people really cared about their situation, and because the actors communicated this, Rohmer was justified.


Claire's Knee, however, asks for too great a suspension of belief, and offers little compensation in emotional or philosophic or purely decorative terms. In short, it is not "a gem." but an artistic failure.

For a four-character film, the plot is convoluted. Jereme, an about-to-be-married diplomat vacationing in Annecy, by chance meets with an old writer friend, Aurora. She is living with a twice-married Frenchwoman and her two daughters in their bourgeois summer home, while trying to find some incident to spark her writing talent. Jerome mentions to her that he is getting married out of convenience; he's lived with his Lucinde (the picture shown is of a young Jeanne Moreau) at various times in the last six years without losing pleasure in her and as he no longer enjoys the contest of girl-chasing, he feels it would be a pleasure to be married, Aurora-perhaps out of pique, though we are never quite sure, as she's played by an untalented non actress-persuades Jerome that he could be the model for a short story she's writing about a dissipated middle-aged womanizer gradually obsessed with an adolescent girl.

Although Jerome at first quickly discounts the idea, he finds himself drawn to the 15 year-old Laura, claiming his pleasure is only the voyeuristic one the audience is gaining. After a brief flirtation, in which little more is established than the romantic idealism of the young, Jerome drops his dalliance with Laura, but begins to find her sister Claire desirable. Telling Aurora that he is a lead character in a play of his own devising, he becomes attracted to Claire's knee; when he finally caresses it, all his desires are consummated. He leaves Annocy feeling that he will now be able to control his desires without denying their existence, as he had before.

He also feels that he has performed a moral service to Claire by warning of her boyfriend's dallying with another maiden. Jerome has obviously misread the boy's action, but the morality of the betrayal is left ambiguous. As long as his characters are happy, Rohmer is, too.

The film is, of course, not simple-minded. Jerome's behavior could probably be traced to Montaigne: "Vain glory and curiosity are the two scourges of our soul. The latter leads us to thrust our nose into everything, and the former forbids us to leave anything unresolved. . . ."

And God knows Claire's knee is not your typical erogenous zone; given the appeal of the acting (excepting Aurora), one cannot deny Rohmer's successful evocation of voyeuristic pleasure.

But there is no depth to the film. Rohmer said prior to filming that "it will not be as serious as Maud, nor as pseudo-erotic as La Collectionneuse . . . it should be both sunny and reflective." It certainly is sunny, but the rate of human substance per cogitative dialogue is quite low. Our curiosity never turns to compassion. One critic has acclaimed the film as a comedy of manners in the French classical tradition. Indeed, the diplomat and the novelist do jostle the bourgeoisie and Claire's surly boyfriend somewhat, and Rohmer's society is a given to which the characters must reform. But the people portrayed really don't care about anything except their own surface veneer; if this is classicism, it says more about the elitism of today's educated audiences than about the film's wit or artistry.

III Taking Off is an equally minor film and a greater failure. Like Claire's Knee for Rohmer, this is Milos Forman's fourth film, and a comedown from his previous work.

The surface problem is a familiar one: Czech expatriate Forman is not familiar with the American milieu. His Greenwich Villagers look and sound like Jones Beach burliness, his suburban middle-class home is unrelievedly, unfunnily tacky; not sterile, but completely manufactured, though he films it gently, with soft lighting.

These compromises didn't offend me as much as the limited human viewpoint. The film's foundation is a slight story of two suburban parents struggling to find their daughter. (She had returned home one night to a mother frantically checking for needle marks and an angry father; justifiably, she then ran back to Greenwich Village.) They search throughout the city, are called to upstate New York only to find a neighbor's runaway, and join the S.P.F.C.-the Society for the Parents of Fugitive Children. Finally, the daughter returns with a wealthy rock musician, the father serenades the pair after he learns the boy is earning $290,000 per annum, and all is well.