July 12, 2016
My Summer of Rohmer has been held over for its fourth smash week! For the uninitiated, I have been writing about the summer-set films of Eric Rohmer, allowing my vacation-less self to live vicariously through his characters. I have already traveled to Saint-Tropez for La Collectionneuse (1967), the French Alps for Claire’s Knee (1970), and Normandy for Pauline at the Beach (1983). Today I join one of Rohmer’s most peripatetic souls, Delphine (played by Marie Rivière), through Cherbourg, the Alps, and Biarritz in The Green Ray (1986). Delphine has recently separated from her long-distance boyfriend, leaving her alone and without direction for her summer vacation. A melancholy romantic, she is fiercely protective of her independence, and forever seeking the man who is worthy to end it. She spends her holiday bouncing from resort town to resort town, staying long enough until her loneliness overwhelms her and she is forced to move on. She begins to see portents all around, creating meaning by turning the world into a Tarot card to be read. Rohmer finds the beauty in her intense ascetic solitude, and grants her an ending of offhand sublimity.
It has been absurdly difficult to see The Green Ray in the United States since its theatrical release, where it was re-titled Summer and topped Andrew Sarris’ top ten list. The Fox Lorber DVD is out-of-print and pricey, and there are no streaming options (though VHS versions can be had cheaply). I viewed it on a UK Region 2 DVD, part of Arrow’s eight-film Eric Rohmer Collection, and it is also available on Blu-ray from the French label Potemkine, although only as part of a massively expensive box set (and it is locked for Region B – so you must have an all-region player to view). However you can get your hands on it, it’s worth it.
Rohmer first conceived of The Green Ray after seeing the following classified ad: “I am beautiful. I am from Biarritz. I should please, and men pay no attention to me, why?”. He combined this with his childhood memories of reading Jules Verne’s The Green Ray, a romance of the Scottish highlands in which a young girl avoids romance until she can see the titular ray, a flash of light that occurs after the sun sets, and which, per Verne, “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.” The film takes the lonely yearning of the classified ad and the mystical romance of the Verne novel and combines it into the character of Delphine, created together by Rohmer and actress Marie Rivière.
Rohmer and Rivière held endless conversations about the character, with the director recording the actress’ thoughts on everything from her relationships to her vegetarianism, all of which were incorporated into the script. In the newly translated Eric Rohmer, A Biography by Antoine de Baecque and Noel Herpe, Rivière recalls Rohmer saying that, “I’m reproached for writing sentences that are too long. But in life, people talk a long time without stopping. And I’m going to demonstrate that. No one will see the difference between a text I’ve written and an improvised text.” In order to create an atmosphere conducive to such improvisation, Rohmer opted for a completely female crew, from the sound engineer to the camera operator. He hired the 23-year-old Sophie Maintigneux to be the cinematographer, “giving her a small Aaton 16mm camera fitted with an old-fashioned zoom lens. Although he sometimes discreetly asked Sophie to use this zoom lens…in general he let her set the frame the way she wanted.” Francois Etchegaray was the production supervisor, who had already helped Rohmer on Full Moon in Paris. Rohmer would tell Marie Claire magazine that “It isn’t that I like girls so much that I feel the girl that resides in every man. I feel it in me.”
It was an austere, cheap 16mm production, shot in chronological order. Etchegaray was frequently annoyed by Rohmer’s miserliness, but toughed it out, arranging housing with friends and family at each of the locations and casting locals wherever possible. After it was shot, it sat in the can for two years while Rohmer decided what to do with this strange object. Eventually it was cut into presentable form by his longtime editor Cecile Decugis and her assistant Lisa Heredia. He decided on the unusual route of giving it to the cable television channel Canal+. They would debut it on television before its theatrical premiere. From the Canal+ advance and the one paid by Orion Classics in the United States, the film was almost entirely paid for before it’s opening. It’s theatrical life was not harmed by debuting on television, either, as it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and attracted more than 460,000 viewers in France. Baecque and Herpe claim it was “certainly one of the most profitable films in the history of French cinema.”
Rohmer wanted the intimacy of a home movie, and got a tremblingly open-nerved performance from Rivière as a result. Incorporating her own improvisations with Rohmer’ written texts, Rivière’s Delphine is annoyingly sympathetic, a vulnerable introvert and judgmental scold. So intent on protecting the domain of her self, she can lash out at others simply wanting to entertain her. Any incursion into her space is a violation to Delphine, whether well-meaning or no. And Rivière can throw a fine tantrum with her long-levered limbs. But then she is given moments of privileged silence. There are three pivotal sequences of solitude at her vacation stops, where she walks off on her own and contemplates her loneliness. Rivière’s face can be a mask when with others, but here it cracks, she is so utterly alone against the vastness of nature. To invest this solitude with meaning, she begins to read signs. Throughout her journey she stumbles upon the color green, whether on street signs or the playing cards that mysteriously turn up at her feet. Though she denies a belief in the supernatural during an earlier conversation with friends, as the vacation drags on she begins to grasp for such belief as coincidences pile up around her and a group of scholars discuss Verne’s The Green Ray in Biarritz.
A fugue (composed by Jean-Louis Valero) intermittently plays on the soundtrack, a rare use of non-diegetic sound by Rohmer, as Delphine seeks the ray, and impulsively flirts with a cabinetmaker (Vincent Gauthier) at the Biarritz train station. Everything starts to glow with meaning as she travels with him to Saint-Jean-de-Luz, at which a gift shop is named Le Rayon Vert, and the sun begins to set over the horizon. He asks Delphine to stay with her a few days. She delays a response until after the sunset, waiting to see the ray, for the truth, and for some rest in the arms of another.
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