(Le Rayon Vert)
Directed by Eric Rohmer. France. 1986.
Reviewed by Alan Pavelin and Howard Schumann
More than any other of his films, The Green Ray is built around the characters of the actors, and non-actors, involved, and the dialogue is entirely improvised. This is largely thanks to the lead actress, Marie Riviere (a Rohmer regular), described as “script collaborator” in the credits. The credits show that nearly every character (but not that played by Riviere herself) bears the same Christian name as the actor. It appears, indeed, that most of the other actors were simply friends or family of the director and his lead actress, including Riviere’s two sisters, brother-in-law, and niece, who in effect play themselves. A few of the actors even seem to be people Rohmer or Riviere spotted in the various locations who looked suitable for the part. Even the star-sign attributed to the Riviere character is the same as that of the actress herself (I checked!).
The story is simple. Delphine (Marie Riviere) is a Paris secretary who has been let down in her holiday plans. Desperate to find someone to go on holiday with, she is persuaded to visit first Cherbourg, then the French Alps, from both of which she returns almost immediately. We increasingly see that she is highly neurotic, cannot fit in, and seems to like nothing more than lone country walks; she is searching for her heart’s desire without knowing who or what it is, and refuses to settle for second-best. She ends up in Biarritz where she hears about the rare atmospheric phenomenon known as the “green ray” (a flash of green on the setting sun), about which Jules Verne wrote a story. Meeting a young man called Jacques at the station after her inevitable decision to return home early, they go to the beach at sunset and glimpse the green ray. This is Delphine’s epiphany, she is filled with joy, the film ends, and we are left to wonder what will become of her and Jacques.
Improvised dialogue and acting, especially by non-actors, can be embarrassing; some of Rossellini’s great neo-realist films are occasionally marred by this. But here it is wondrous to behold, and I cannot praise Marie Riviere’s performance too highly. To some viewers she comes across as an intensely irritating character who should just “get a life”, to others she is to be admired for sticking to her principles even at the cost of losing companions, such as when she insists on her vegetarianism at Cherbourg, or refuses to join the Swedish girl Lena in topless bathing and casual sex at Biarritz. Her sudden flight after enduring several minutes of the idiotic chit-chat between Lena and a boy comes across as either utterly bizarre or totally understandable.
Several incidents in the film are carefully planned and unimprovised, usually heralded by a delicate musical theme (almost unique in Rohmer). In particular there are the playing cards Delphine picks up on two occasions, the Queen of Spades and the Jack of Hearts, signifying respectively the bad and good luck which she will experience. The most carefully planned of all is the green ray itself, which Rohmer found impossible to film in reality (it is a rare occurrence) and which he had to create as a “special effect” in the studio. This is clearly visible on the DVD, though I missed it on the one occasion I saw the film in the cinema, which made me wonder whether it was specially re-created for the DVD. In any event, this final scene is immensely moving.
If you like Eric Rohmer’s films, you cannot fail to enjoy The Green Ray.
When vacation time comes, her girlfriend goes to Greece with a boyfriend and she is left alone and feeling rejected. Turning down an offer to visit Ireland with her sister's family, she decides to take a trip to Cherbourg with a friend and her boyfriend, and does her best to fit in but it only leads to more frustration. After her friends prepare an elaborate dinner she tells them that she doesn't meat, seafood, or eggs and prefers vegetables like lettuce because they make her feel "light". She won't go sailing because it makes her seasick and she refuses a gift of apple blossoms because she thinks it's wrong to tear such large branches from trees. Rohmer impeccably captures Delphine's intense loneliness, a feeling of isolation that is even more pronounced when the people around you are doing what they think will make you happy. Near tears, she returns to Paris after only a few days in Cherbourg, then visits the Alps thinking she will go mountain climbing but she stays only one day.
When Delphine borrows a friend's apartment in Biarritz, however, she does settle down long enough to unpack. In Biarritz, the story is pretty much the same, however. Delphine says that she wants to meet people but when the opportunity arises in the form of two young men and Lena (Carita), a young Swedish blond, she runs the other way, although from all indications, leaving seems to be the most sensible option. Lena advises her to play cat and mouse with men. "It's like a card game", she says, "you can't reveal your hand right off". Delphine uses this piece of advice as another reason for beating herself up. "My hand is empty", she declares.
Delphine doesn't seem to believe in much, but, like many lonely people, she looks for signs that things are going to turn out all right. She is fascinated with playing cards and when she finds a green card lying in the street, she knows that green is her color of destiny for this year. While strolling the beach at Biarritz she overhears a conversation about a Jules Verne novel about an atmospheric phenomenon known as the Green Ray and she is mesmerized. According to Verne, just before the sun sets below the horizon, if you can see a burst of green light, it will help allow you gain an insight into your true self.
A synopsis of the plot, however, tells us little about what actually goes on in this mostly improvised film. Like most Rohmer works, what happens in the silences is more revealing than in the conversations. An entire world is written in the gestures, the facial expressions, and the nuances that reveal each character's personality. Summer is an intimate story of a woman's loneliness that rings true and brought back a flood of painful memories for me. Delphine, for all her warts, is very human. Somewhere up ahead always looks better than right here. When she can open herself up to the perfection of the moment, however, she becomes directly present to the world and can share its ineffable beauty.
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