The Common-You-Know-What, or Eric Rohmer’s Claire’s Kootykat

What is surprising, at least for me, is my immediate thought upon hearing of Rohmer’s death.

The Common-You-Know-What, or Claire's Kootykat
Photo: Janus Films

So, Eric Rohmer is dead, which is not at all surprising given that he was 89. What is surprising, at least for me, is my immediate thought upon hearing of his death. I thought of Father Brogan, the Jesuit who taught my undergraduate political science class at my college. Like Mssr. Rohmer, Father Brogan is also dead, and I took his class in the Spring of ’89—coincidentally Rohmer’s age—but neither of those is the reason I thought of him.

Father Brogan was an old man, a servant of God with a scholarly grey beard, a penchant for blue dress shirts (he never wore a collar), and a tendency to drone on for the entire class about “The Common Good.” I had him in the C pattern of my schedule, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 11-11:50 AM. Despite being fascinated by politics, especially the dirty kind that ran through my home state like shit through a goose, I found Political Science 101 an incredible bore. Occasionally, Father Brogan would shake us from our glazed stupor over the Common Good by saying something filthy and/or off the wall, but he rarely strayed from the topic. Once he said “shit” with the fury of someone who had just fallen ass-first into the fires of Hell, and another time he talked about sucking the Government’s Tits, which were at the time represented by Barbara Bush’s knockers. But the other 97% of the time, it was All Common Good, All The Time. There was so much ado about The Common Good that my final exam was me repeating the definition of the Common Good thirteen different ways. It was a masterpiece of term-paper bullshit, and the man, bless his heart, gave me an A-minus as my final grade for the class.

Outside of the subject matter, Poli Sci 101 was consistent in one other way: At the beginning of every class, Father Brogan would open his blue notebook and recite a prayer. Not a prayer to praise His Holy Name or to give big-ups to the Virgin Mary. No, Father Brogan was a Republican, and his prayers were always more political than theological. “Heavenly Father,” began Father Brogan on the particular day that linked him and Rohmer forever in my memory, “please guide George Bush’s hand to continue the work of the great Ronald Reagan.” Head bowed, I offered up a canceling-out prayer: “No, sweet Jesus, please strike George Bush and that son of a bitch Reagan with thy lightning! We ask these things in your name…”

After the partisan prayer, Father Brogan called on us to discuss our homework. I sat in front of the the class, as I was wont to do in school because I was a humongous grade whore whose hand was always up. “Mr. Hernandez,” he said to the grade whore with the permanently raised hand, “do you know the answer?” “It’s Henderson,” I said for the 100th time before showing the class I had actually read the boring ass material we’d been assigned. I still think Willie Hernandez got the A I deserved in this class. I honestly don’t remember what the question was, but I am sure it had something to do with The Common-You-Know-What. But I do remember what happened next.

Whether inspired by my answer or some random memory popping into his aging brain, Father Brogan started telling us about some French movie. “Blah blah blah blah blah,” he said, for it certainly wasn’t interesting to me, at least not until he said “and then Claire climbed a ladder and Jérôme came face to face (pause) with Claire’s knee.”

Claire’s Knee_2

He paused, and looked heavenward before continuing to speak. “And at once, Jérôme became obsessed with that heavenly, heavenly knee.”

As he continued to describe the film, or more specifically, the titular object of Le genou de Claire, horror washed over me in waves. Father Brogan was getting HOT over this. And not just a little hot, either. He was sighing, smacking his lips and practically panting. His face and neck were turning red and he became more animated. “All this over a KNEE?!!” my confused 18-year-old brain asked. “What’s so fucking compelling about a knee? Now, Claire’s Kootykat—that I can understand!” I figured I’d better pay attention, because there had to be more to it than this. It’s a French movie, I reasoned, and PBS had shown me over the years that French movies were perverted as shit. “Maybe her knee has a hidden vagina in it!” I considered. Suddenly I became hooked on the story.

“Jérôme wants to touch (long pause) Claire’s knee so much,” panted Father Brogan. “And one day, he gets his chance. He…”

Suddenly, Father Brogan stopped talking about the movie. “But back to the Common Good,” he said. “WHAT?!!” my inner voice shrieked. “Where’s the rest of the story? What the hell happened next? Did he touch her knee and blow up? Did she slap him? Was there or was there not a hidden knee vagina?!” My face must have registered shock, because the professor addressed me directly. “Is there a problem, Mr. Hernandez?”

“Um, no,” I said.

Later that day, I called the Great Love of my Life, who was also in college, albeit in Tennessee. An arts history major who spoke fluent French, I was sure she’d know of this French movie. When I described the plot, she said “yeah, I’ve seen that. Claire’s Knee. Eric Rohmer directed it.”

“So what happens?” I asked. “Does he touch her knee or not?!”

“Silly boy,” she said to me, “that isn’t even the point of the movie.”

“How can’t it be?” I protested. “It’s the name of the damn movie!”

“Still,” she said in that “you’re so unrefined” tone of hers I hated. “It’s much deeper than that.”

“Well, does he fuck her?” I asked.

“Must you be so crude about art?” she asked, shaming me. After that, I certainly wasn’t going to ask about hidden genitalia in knees. I sighed in surrender.

“PBS is going to run some Rohmer during their beg-a-thon this year,” she told me. “Why don’t you find out for yourself what happens to Claire and her knee?”

Eventually I found out about Claire’s knee and Pauline’s beach and Chloe’s afternoon, a night at Maud’s and many other Rohmer stories. More than once, I was bored out of my fucking mind. But also, more than once, I was intrigued, surprised and riveted by what I saw unfolding onscreen. And I have Father Brogan’s R-rated reaction to a PG-rated joint to thank for that.

R.I.P. Eric Rohmer. And Father Brogan too.

Claire’s Knee_3

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Odie Henderson

Odie Henderson's work has also appeared in The Village Voice, Vulture, Cineaste Magazine, MovieMezzanine, Salon, and RogerEbert.com.

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