June 8, 2010
The greatest cinephile deal going right now is for Arrow Films’ 8-Disc Box Set of Eric Rohmer films, which includes all six entries in his Comedies & Proverbs series, along with Love in the Afternoon and The Marquise of O. At Amazon UK (a region 2 disc, you’ll need an all-region player to spin it), it’s priced at 11.93 pounds, which is 17.27 USD. That’s the highest sublimity-per-dollar ratio you’ll find anywhere! Guaranteed.
So with summer approaching, ready to expunge sweat from heretofore unknown pores, I watched Rohmer’s The Green Ray (1986, titled Summer in the U.S.) in my un-air conditioned apartment on a 90 degree day. Delphine (Marie Rivière) is planning a vacation to the Greek isles when her friend backs out two weeks before departure. Scrambling to find an alternate getaway, she gloms on to another friend’s trip to Cherbourg.
This begins a frustrating, lonely journey as Delphine bounces from resort town to resort town, each densely populated sun-dappled spot making her feel more alone than the last. She refuses to mask her pain with play-acting or empty flirtations, holding firm to her ideal of romantic love. Her interest in superstitions and the supernatural is curiously stoked by the fortuitous appearance of green playing cards and a mention of Jules Verne’s novel The Green Ray. She senses a pattern in these shades (the kind of game playing one is used to seeing in Rivette), which leads her to embrace the spirit of the Rimbaud epigram that begins the film: “Let the moment come/When hearts will be one.” (“Song From the Tallest Tower”, translated by Wyatt Mason)
For most of the movie though, her attitude resembles the second stanza in the poem:
Just say: let go,
of greater joy.
Let nothing impede
Delphine would like nothing more than to disappear. The three fulcrums of the story are her walks into nature, in which she’s trying to fade away. In Cherbourg, she wanders around a leafy path, stopping in front of a wooden gate. Alone with her thoughts, Rohmer cuts to a montage of tree branches swaying in the wind, before cutting back to her face. In a film that’s mostly two shots, or shot counter-shots, of people conversing, these quick cuts to empty spaces are privileged, emphasizing her oppressive solitude. She cries in close-up. Unable to disappear, she leaves town instead – and the second shot finds her strolling through the Alps, pausing to graze her hand against the hard-packed snow. In a rare long shot, her silhouette is visible against the backdrop of craggy peaks, her tears elided. She cuts her visit short, and soon finds herself in Biarritz, strolling down a stone staircase in a red poncho, hoping to find some kind of peace by the caves – but the tide is high. In an interview on the DVD, Rohmer calls this her “descent into hell”.
Rohmer uses splashes of red throughout the movie – on Delphine’s bag, a suitor’s sweater, a Cherbourg dress – and finally ending in the poncho – marking her lowest point. While the reds spiral downward into despair, the greens offer a way out. She finds a green-backed Queen of spades on the streets of Paris, a green ad for a seance that reads,”Regain contact with yourself and others…”, and a green-backed King of Hearts. She even mentions that a medium told her that green would be her color for the year. Finally, she overhears an older group of tourists discussing Jules Verne’s The Green Ray, in which she hears that the final ray of light the sun emits before sinking below the horizon is green. It is only visible on perfectly clear days, and according to Verne, a Scottish legend claims that:
“this ray has the virtue of making him who has seen it impossible to be deceived in matters of sentiment; at its apparition all deceit and falsehood are done away, and he who has been fortunate enough once to behold it is enabled to see closely into his own heart and read the thoughts of others.”
Helena Campbell, the heroine of The Green Ray, refuses to marry the pretentious knob Aristobulus Ursiclos until she sees the ray and understands her own heart. Rohmer clearly pulled some aspects of Delphine from Helena. Verne again:
“De Maistre has said, “there are in me two beings: myself and another.” The “myself” of Miss Campbell was a serious, reflecting being, looking upon life from the point of view of its duties rather than its rights. The “other” was a romantic being, somewhat prone to superstition…”
Along with this similarity of temperament, they share a fractured itinerary. Helena forces her two Uncles to travel from isle to isle, in order to find the perfect sea horizon to view the ray which Aristobulus keeps clumsily blocking. They are constantly on the move. Delphine is on her own jagged path, seemingly more out of lassitude than romantic intensity, but both girls end up searching out the ray for a kind of transcendent self-determination.
Delphine encounters a series of Ursicloses along the way, from the strapping and shirtless to the meek and leather-jacketed. She dismisses them all with skittish indeterminacy, running away rather than causing a scene. It is only when exhausted in body and soul, collapsed in a molded plastic seat at the Biarritz train station, that she opens herself up, as open as her copy of Dostoyevsky’s THE IDIOT (and she very well may aspire to Prince Myshkin’s absolute lack of self-regard and Christ-like innocence…she at least relates to his rejection by society).
An exchange of looks with a cabinet-maker leads her to an impulsive jaunt to St. Jean de Luz, where she passes the gift shop “Le Rayon Vert” (The Green Ray), until she settles on a bench with her man and tries to answer a question. She’s just waiting for the light…
The beauties of this final sequence ought not be put in words (or I’m not the one who’s capable), as it captures the moment “when hearts be one” with a joyfulness and lack of artifice that would make Rimbaud and Myshkin weep. I’ll let Jules Verne and Rohmer have the last act:
Helena felt instilled with new life as she inhaled the fresh breezes; her beautiful, clear eyes sparkled with health as she gazed on the rippling waters of the Atlantic stretching far and wide, and her pale cheeks were faintly tinged with pink. How lovely she looked! And how charming her whole appearance! Oliver Sinclair walked a little way behind, and regarded her in silence; he who had often accompanied her in her long walks without the slightest embarrassment, now scarcely dared look at her for the wild throbbing of his heart!