Eric Rohmer's spry 1986 film is one of cinema's sublime masterworks. So why not come and see it for free?
It is hard to express in a cogent, unhysterical fashion why – to these eyes at least – Eric Rohmer's rhapsodic 1986 film, The Green Ray, stands among the headiest pinnacles of modern cinematic art. It's not a revolutionary film in a traditional sense of the word, in that it doesn't set out to bullishly confound or distort the norms of filmmaking practice or ideology.
And it's also a film whose modest concerns and production methods belie profound and intangible cosmic depths. There are things about it – near-imperceptible touches and quietly radical formulations – which lend it a unique, quixotic quality which pushes it far above and beyond its contemporaries. It also carries with it a luminescent purity and sincerity which only accentuates its extraordinary appeal.
In the crudest sense, The Green Ray (released in the US as Summer) is about a young, tousle-haired Parisian secretary named Delphine (played by the mesmeric Marie Rivière, an actor who has the same fragile rag-doll quality as, say, Shelley Duvall) who, having recently been dumped by her boyfriend, finds it increasingly difficult to decide where she wants to go on holiday. It adopts the form of a miniature, multi-chaptered odyssey about a woman in search of comfort, pleasure and companionship, but whose personal sense of basic satisfaction has been temporarily jolted out of synch.
As with previous Rohmer films such as La Collectionneuse (1967) and Claire's Knee (1970), the film also documents the simple stresses of going on holiday, a motif that's compounded via first-time (22-year-old!) cinematographer Sophie Maintigneux's quaint and ironic picture-postcard compositions. Indeed, as much as the film is itself about an indecisive woman traversing the holiday hotspots of France and attempting to relinquish the shackles of her loneliness, the production itself saw a skeleton technical crew visiting their old holiday haunts and real life family boltholes.
Rohmer acolytes wouldn't be wrong to see it as another bittersweet, daydreamy doodle which blends seamlessly into his oeuvre of deceptively slight, verbose and transcendental dramas, all of which are spun from quotidian situations and often oddly banal human urges. Rohmer has said that he has zero interest in making films which are based upon actual historical events, as television and news coverage have already amply packaged and delivered those stories. He makes films that mine poetry from the stuff that happens between events, the pauses between the words. His is a cinema not of actions, but of reactions.
On paper, the film sounds like the sort of insipid index of first world problems which would incite revulsion, not empathy for our plucky, discombobulated heroine. And Delphine is not contrived as a character with which viewers are invited to instantly fall in love. Indeed, Rivière – with her kooky green beret and wild mood swings – moulds Delphine in a manner which bravely envelops a catalogue irksome human flaws.
In one (famous) scene, Delphine is sat at a large outdoor table with friends of friends. A tray of pork arrives, inciting gasps of hungry excitement from the various diners. Delphine humbly announces that she's a vegetarian, and the ensuing dialogue initially stresses the ignorance of the other guests as they appear utterly stupefied by the concept of existing without the regular consumption of meat.
But as the scene plays out, the balance of power – or at least the level of audience sympathy – noticeably shifts. Delphine won't stop talking about her draconian, self-imposed dietary habits. She digs herself into a hole. The camera slowly tightens up on her, crushes her within the frame. Her words eventually come across as didactic and confrontational. She's disgusted by the idea of killing animals for food. "To me, a lettuce is a friend" she says. She casts a wry smile between words, almost as if to buffet some of the absurdity of her proclamations. The diners begin to mock her.
Far from the scene taking the somewhat obvious route of milking the comedy of sustained embarrassment, it encapsulates much of what's great about the film – and Rohmer's cinematic project – as a whole. On a purely superficial level, it's perhaps the film's finest example of Rivière's redoubtable improvisatory skills. This was Rohmer's first film that didn't adhere strictly to a set script, and there's a certain irony to the notion that while Rivière's character is entirely lost and alone, in the real world she shares a sublime, preternatural synchronicity with the director and his concerns.
The scene also brings some of Delphine's more instantly unpalatable foibles to the fore, not just implying that she has the potential to be annoying and combative in certain social situations, but offering colour, texture and even an explanation as to why this character may have been dumped in the first place. It deals with difficult emotions in a mature and provocative fashion, inverting supposed cinematic truisms which state that lead characters should be shining paragons of truth, knowledge and righteousness.
But more than that, the scene gets right to the heart of one of the major themes of the film: the difficulty of fulfilling personal taste. Delphine circumnavigates the holiday destinations of France in search of... something. And yet even living her life under the strictures of vegetarianism brings her immense discomfort and sorrow. A few scenes later, she is seen walking alone along a woodland path, quietly weeping as the trees convulse in the breeze. "Ah! Let the time come when hearts are enamoured," reads a quote from Rimbaud's Song of the Tallest Tower in an opening title credit. Delphine is waiting, not so patiently, for that time to arrive.
The reason the film is called The Green Ray relates to a digression which occurs about two thirds of the way in. Delphine, who has awkwardly settled herself on the bustling beaches of Biarritz with a paperback of Dostoevsky's 'The Idiot', wanders by a mid-flow literary circle at the exact moment they begin to analyse Jules Verne's romantic 1882 novel, 'The Green Ray'. The title, we are told, relates to a rare meteorological occurrence in which a piercing flash of green light is emitted from the horizon just as the sun dips out of sight. If the phenomenon is witnessed, it is said to allow a person to become truly cognisant of their own feelings.
Whether it's down to her obsessive persona or a propensity for locating hidden depths in potentially meaningless 'signs', Delphine sees this as the key to attaining eventual romantic contentment. And as someone who sees mystic portents in playing cards and coloured street signs she finds scattered across the land, why not? The film is not saying that joy can only be attained via these arbitrary epiphanies or by dedicating your life to making these bizarre symbolic connections, but it offers a moving and credible exploration of spirituality as something which can both dull the pain of existence, and bring a sensational beauty to the world.
One of the film's simple visual constructs is that it takes the form of a diary, with a series of title cards keeping track of the day and date of events as the occur. We're also given numerous shots of clocks ticking. The suggestion here is that as much as Delphine's anxiety is born out of her abject loneliness, she is also highly conscious that time is passing her by. Her desperation for a romantic connection is the product of fears that she's getting older and less appealing to men.
For a film whose entire narrative pivots on an unprecedented (and possibly fictional) celestial configuration, the most miraculous aspect of The Green Ray relates to the way in which its apparent formal flippancy cloaks the fact that every shot, every line of dialogue and every nuance positively heaves with subtext and emotion. The film is, of course, deeply concerned with the story, situations and performance, but it's the fine details which matter most. It's not what Delphine is saying, it's what she's thinking, where she's looking, what she's wearing, her expressions, how she moves across the frame. Again, it's the space between that matters most.
With its improvisatory techniques and on-the-lam directorial mode, The Green Ray is a film which exists in a singular cinematic vacuum. On one hand, you might see it as a salute to the stucturally audacious meta-documentaries of Jean Rouch, which delicately alter our relationship with the on-screen characters by toying with our perception of the material But on the other, the film could also be seen as a 'women's picture' in the classical sense of the term. Delphine's complex web of social dilemmas feel at one with, say, Mildred Pierce, or Jane Wyman's Cary Scott in Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows.
Yet attempting to 'place' The Green Ray ends up being futile, as even within Rohmer's own estimable back catalogue, the film comes across as an ethereal one-off. Its climax is astounding, comprising a breathtaking (trick?) shot that serves to silence all those who say the director was only interested in dialogue. It's a moment that drags you to the edge of your seat. And whatever you're feelings about Delphine by the closing frames, only the sourest of misers would not want her to have her own little prophecy in the sky.
The Green Ray screens at 71a as part of our MUBI Mondays series.