This article originally appeared here at Moon In The Gutter to mark the passing of the great Jean-Claude Brialy.
After a decade of working with pretty much every important French New Wave director on the scene, Jean-Claude Brialy started the 1970's out with a film for a director he once described as 'the pope' of the new wave, Eric Rohmer. Rohmer initially offered Brialy the lead in his fifth Moral Tale, LE GENOU DE CLAIRE (CLAIRE'S KNEE) in 1968 and Brialy accepted instantaneously.
Looking over his unbelievable filmography I was struck by just how many favorites of mine Jean-Claude appeared in. I could start an entire new blog just dedicated to his best work so I knew really attempting to cover too many of them wasn't feasible. I wanted to write on one that I thought stood out, at least to me, as the best of the many great films Brialy made.
One aspect of Eric Rohmer's genius that isn't pointed out enough is his ability to cast just the right actor in the right role, and it his timing with these roles that is so uncanny. Think of Francoise Fabien in MY NIGHT AT MAUDS, no other actress could have inhabited that role better than her and yet just a year or two earlier or later in her career and she might have felt out of place in it. Throughout Rohmer's career he has had this ability of giving roles to people in that perfect instance in their lives and this was never more than true than the casting of Jean-Claude Brialy as Jerome in CLAIRE'S KNEE.
The first thing that should be noted about Jean-Claude as Jerome is his striking appearance. Fully bearded and heavier than he had ever been, he almost looks like a completely different person from the actor everyone fell in love with in the sixties. Jerome, over-confident and almost cold, could have been a really unlikable character with any other actor playing him. But there is something in Brialy's eyes in this film that is quite remarkable. There is a real sadness there, an almost weariness behind the cocky mask he wears that suggests he is someone who knows that the one thing he can't conquer, aging, is in fact conquering him.
Jerome is engaged and on his last holiday as a bachelor. He talks of women now leaving him cold, with his fiancee an exception. The relationship is obviously a passionless one and Jerome has an invisible fortress around him of indifference. He meets up with an old friend, a writer named Aurora, who is amused by him. She introduces him to the teenage Laura in order to convince him that he can still feel a certain fire but Jerome feels well above it all and maintains his coldness...until he meets Laura's older sister Claire. Claire, and specifically her knee, reminds him of something from his youth. This something that she reminds him of suddenly starts to remove the armor that has weighed him down for so long and the cracks in his cool demeanor start to show.
I can't think of too many performances that portray approaching middle age and the inevitable disappointments life gives better than Jean-Claude Brialy in CLAIRE'S KNEE. Brialy is able to make Jerome among the most human characters in screen history. He is smug yet defeated, and projects an outward confidence while a vulnerable little child sits deep within him. Brialy's Jerome is a mirror for our failings and yet a perfect reminder that the human spirit doesn't have to grow old with the body.
Rohmer directs the film with his usual subtle flair and his legendary gift for dialogue is at it's sharpest here. Few writers have ever been able to accurately get the way people actually talk, but somehow the great Rohmer always manages it. Brialy would say that Rohmer invited him to change the script to his liking and Brialy admitted that he wouldn't dare change even a comma.
Last year Criterion gave film lovers a major gift with their Eric Rohmer Moral Tales box set. Featuring a generous supply of extras and exquisite transfers, CLAIRE'S KNEE with it's sun drenched Nestor Almendros photographer benefited greatly and the disc is an ideal way to watch this beautiful film.
Brialy and Rohmer would never work together again. I suspect they both knew that they couldn't top perfection. CLAIRE'S KNEE and Jean-Claude Brialy's performance are among the best French cinema has to offer.