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.”

Le Rayon Vert 5a

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.


June 8, 2010

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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,


Without hope

of greater joy.

Let nothing impede

August retreat

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!

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