ReFramed No. 9: Eric Rohmer’s ‘Le Rayon Vert’


Jordan Cronk: Out of all the original Cahiers du cinema critics-turned-filmmakers, the recently deceased Eric Rohmer is perhaps the least appreciated, despite having arguably the widely accessible (stylistically speaking) catalogue. He was certainly the classicist of the group—and thus perhaps the most subtly groundbreaking—but his body of work is a rather extraordinary, single-minded entity unique to cinema history. And the six films which make up his mid-career “Comedies and Proverbs” series are at once his least seen but to my mind most universal, three dimensional creations. His recently restored 1986 feature The Green Ray—currently touring the States under its original title, Le Rayon Vert—is equal parts centerpiece and standalone masterpiece, the single most moving, mysterious, and transcendent film in a career with no shortage of worthy candidates.

This, of course, is only an opinion that’s very recently begun to take a more prominent foothold in the critical community, many still preferring the more rigidly formalistic style perfected in his early Six Moral Tales series. But I’m curious to hear where you fall on this spectrum, Calum—and to hear how you think The Green Ray fits into such a vast filmmography—since there are arguments and pleasures to be made and appreciated amongst both periods—and that’s to say nothing of the subsequent Tale of Four Seasons series, which is richly rewarding in it’s own right.

Calum Marsh: I suspect that, if Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales continue to be his most widely seen and critically well-regarded films, it’s at least partly the fault of circumstance. Like many of the Nouvelle Vague luminaries, and like Jean-Luc Godard in particular, Rohmer earned his place in the canon by virtue of belonging to a movement much bigger than himself, and anything he did after that moment passed into history was inevitably colored by it.

And so, as with Godard, the films one hears about most, and thus the films the critical community tends to rally around most vocally, are his earlier, canonical classics—in this case, Claire’s Knee, My Night At Maud’s, and Chloe In The Afternoon. Not that these films are necessarily Rohmer’s best; what matters more, as far as reputations are concerned, is that they’re readily available and oft-discussed. And considering that Rohmer is already something of an obscure figure in film history, at least compared to the household names of a few of his New Wave contemporaries, anything not universally lauded risks permanent neglect.

But, much in the same way that I prefer Godard’s ’80s and ’90s output to his more canonical ’60s films, my favorite Rohmer film by some margin is this understated 1986 gem, The Green Ray. The film belongs, as you noted, to his mid-period “Comedies and Proverbs” cycle, but I agree that it stands out and stands alone—I feel like it’s one of the great films of the 1980s, and one of the most deeply moving films I’ve ever seen.”

Cronk: Deeply moving is exactly how I feel about it as well. The character of Delphine that Rohmer and actress Marie Rivière created in this film is one of the most complex, involving women I’ve ever seen depicted on screen. She’s confused, hurt, and searching, lost in throes of post-break-up disillusionment which is exacerbated by her inability to secure a summer vacation with anyone she cares about. But she also refuses to buckle to male advances and mostly ignores the advice of her friends, family, and peers in search of something rather elusive.

In fact, it’s that mysterious quality which so ingratiates this film to me: the green color motif—everything from outfits to posters to Delphine’s eyes seem symbolic in this regard—the playing cards that seem to offer hints toward something vaguely unsettling, and of course the slow crawl toward the final phenomenon of the film’s title. By the time the film’s ends—and boy, does it have an extraordinary ending—Delphine’s become a character as admirably confused, confusing, and affecting as any Rohmer ever developed.

Marsh: Yeah, you touched upon a lot of really interesting things there. For one thing, yes, the film is very complex emotionally, and Delphine emerges as three-dimensional and fully realized in sort of an oblique way—she certainly feels real, but her depth is only suggested to us. Her feelings are rarely explicated, and what she expresses outwardly often seems confused or irrational. But by the end of the film one feels a great deal of sympathy for Delphine, whose rejection of banality and refusal to give in to the overwhelming bullshit of social life resonates strongly with me personally.

What’s remarkable, though, is that all of this unfolds in a way which feels completely naturally, and if Rohmer share’s Delphine’s forlorn resignation he never allows it to inflect the style of the film. And it’s a very subtle, nuanced style: shot on 16mm and employing Rohmer’s characteristic long takes, it initially adopts a familiar verite approach—until, as you mentioned, a certain mysterious quality begins to undermine the otherwise documentary-like feel of the film, which culminates in a closing shot that’s ineffably sublime. As in Jacques Rivette’s Out 1, the “natural”, straight-forward aesthetic of The Green Ray gradually gives way to something more portentous and suggestive, which turns out to be a very potent juxtaposition. It’s pretty incredible stuff.

Cronk: Rivette and Rohmer, despite being so thematically and structurally diametric, are aesthetic compatriots in a lot of ways—the 16mm format of these mid-period Rohmer films feel of a piece with Rivette’s best work from the period. They also both put an emphasis on language that is unique. Rohmer in particular is known for his “talk-y” films, and The Green Ray has a lot to say, though much of the meaning, as you mentioned, must be parsed out through Delphine’s elusive speech.

When she finally meets a decent guy towards the film’s conclusion, her conversation with him is equally detailed and rambling, but feels much more honest then when she’s being grilled (no pun intended) about her vegetarianism and lifestyle choices early on in the film. And probably for obvious reasons, but once her guard is down it feels like we’ve finally cracked this women’s shell that she’s seemingly constructed as a shield against the disappointments that seem to frequently keep her from fully experiencing life; which is one more reason why the euphoria of the finale is so heart-swelling.

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.