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ReFramed No. 9: Eric Rohmer's 'Le Rayon Vert'

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Wednesday, Sep 7, 2011
by Jordan Cronk and Calum Marsh

Marsh: This is part of what’s so complex about the film and about Delphine in particular. She’s constantly inundated with advice and encouragement from well-meaning friends and acquaintances, as well as quite a few quasi-romantic advances, but she rejects all of it, sometimes quite harshly. After witnessing some of this antagonism, it’s easy for the viewer to conclude that Delphine is the principal cause of her own unhappiness—she complains of loneliness, but repeatedly flees from opportunities to get involved with men; she’s bored and dejected, but refuses invitations to socialize or have fun; and she generally just seems incapable of going through the motions of daily life that everyone else resigns themselves to.





Perhaps unsurprisingly, a lot of the knee-jerk criticisms of this film stem from a lack of empathy for precisely this antagonism—it’s been shrugged off as a film about a “skinny girl whining”, annoyingly—and, indeed, the degree to which this film will resonate with an audience depends largely on their ability to relate to Delphine’s sense of alienation.


There’s a scene late in the film when Delphine befriends a fun-loving Swede vacationing at the beach, a girl whose sunny disposition and carefree optimism seem, in contrast to Delphine’s despondency, unbearably vapid. They solicit the attention of two young men nearby, and the song and dance of their flirtations, which Delphine eventually up and runs from, seems utterly depressing. Rohmer, for his part, never goes overboard in portraying the vacuity of it all, and that’s part of the film’s strength—he simply allows it to happen, totally unexaggerated, in a manner perfectly consistent with how young people flirt in real life. But by this point we’ve come to align ourselves with Delphine, and this scene illustrates the cause of her sadness and isolation perfectly. She wants to feel a connection with someone, but she won’t sink to that level to do it.


Cronk: Well said. And it’s interesting to note at the same time some of the most lasting moments in the film are the quiet, meditative ones. Delphine often times retires from conversations or situations to cry or contemplate her emotional state (there’s a heartbreaking scene on the hilly countryside that is a masterclass is contrasting natural light and plain physical beauty with that of nature), which she just can’t seem to resolve—a real vacation with a close friend seemingly the only thing she cares about for the first half of the film. Which, like you say, is starkly contrasted with the young Swedish girl later on who reveals that she is traveling Europe all alone, saying something along the lines of, “What other way would I want to travel.”


That scene, in which they encounter the two gentlemen, is the second in which she flees conversations with a man. Her trust in the opposite sex obviously jaded, it isn’t until she stumbles upon a group of older locals discussing Jules Verne’s novel, The Green Ray, that she seems to overhear something that may help facilitate her emotions and open her up to the possibilities of happiness once again. She seems to believe in everything but people at this point, and once it becomes apparent that she may experience this transcendent effect at the moment she’s most vulnerable, the suspense and emotional turmoil have boiled so thoroughly through the character that the ultimate release is experienced not just by Delphine, but also by the audience. It’s a slow burn effect, but its payoff is immense and satisfying.



Marsh: Oh, absolutely, the payoff is huge—surprisingly so, in fact, considering how relatively restrained the rest of the picture is. You can almost sense that the final shot is coming, even early on, and that feeling of inevitability, or of destiny, is one of the major themes of the film. As you’ve already mentioned, the world seems to be offering Delphine all variety of omens for the future, and she seems to believe, or at least she wants to believe, in all of them. I don’t want to reduce the meaning and import of the film to a simplistic platitude, but all of these suggestions of fate and almost supernatural guidance seem, at least to me, to put a surprising amount of faith in an idea of “true love”, quaint though that may sound.


Of course, it’s not as easy as saying that Delphine was destined to fall for the man she meets at the end, and we’re never shown whether the “green ray” she sees clarifies her feelings for him and about herself, as she expects it will. But the film does invest a lot of hope in their encounter, and the final shot offers, if not narrative closure, a great deal of emotional satisfaction.


Cronk: Exactly. The ending feels both satisfying (emotionally) and open-ended (narratively). All those omens, whether coincidental or not, fall by the wayside when the possibility of true connection finally presents itself. So in a way it is kind of a quaint notion—and one, like you said, isn’t necessarily so open and shut—but in a way that is what Rohmer’s films from this period excel at: wringing the most emotional and universal qualities from characters who seem lost in a maze of their own construction.


Sure, these qualities are presented so simply that it can be easy to miss, but in the case of The Green Ray, I feel like there is that little extra intangible that sits in one’s memory and which over time bolsters the film’s slack, conversational gait. This is unfortunately yet another film that we’ve covered that isn’t currently on DVD, but hopefully with the new print and fresh enthusiasm for the picture re-established, The Green Ray can finally take its rightful place not just amongst Rohmer’s best work, but as one of the great examples of empathetic, life-affirming cinema.

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