Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Green Ray (Éric Rohmer, 1986)

It's summer in Paris. Delphine (Marie Rivière), recently broken up with her boyfriend, is two weeks away from an extended vacation. Suddenly, the phone rings in her office. It's the girlfriend coming on vacation with her, calling to cancel. Delphine doesn't yell, but her tone betrays something beyond irritation. Her co-workers, though, take no heed, and they continue to work inches away from her, not even focused in that purposeful way people are when trying their damnedest not to be caught listening in to an uncomfortable phone call. This is obviously such a minor deal that it's not worth their time.

The rest of the film follows outward from this inconvenience, which is complicated by Delphine's inability to find adequate alternate plans for her summer. With Paris half-empty as everyone takes their vacations, Delphine worries about spending her vacation alone. But friends and family immediately invite her to come along to various vacations in the countryside and abroad. One even discusses an upcoming camping trip that makes her sound like the people Laura lambasted in Claire's Knee, playing on the kindness of landowners by taking over the place for their campouts. With every invitation, however, Delphine begins to invent excuses not to go and continues to say that she'd be all alone, even if she went with a big group. Things are clearly not what they seem, and the alternating desire for and rejection of companionship defines the wandering internal conflict of The Green Ray.

Shot on 16mm and tracking Delphine's restless search for a vacation that makes her comfortable, The Green Ray has a street-level, improvisatory feel that recalls the earliest days of the French New Wave, the days Rohmer more or less missed. The dialogue matches the looseness of the direction. Delphine hangs out with friends who encourage her to get out and meet people, to maybe hook up with a guy, just have some fun. But she keeps hedging, saying that she'll be as alone with a group of strangers as she would just driving to some locale. One friend (played by Béatrice Romand, who speaks with a directness and insight that suggests she grew up right out of her character in Claire's Knee) gently but forcefully tells Delphine she needs to open up. "You must escape your loneliness," she says.

Slowly, a portrait emerges, of a woman locked in a depression because she is lonely, and lonely because she deliberately avoids any kind of contact with people. Rohmer tracks her as she roams around Paris, heads to Cherbourg, the Alps, and finally Biarritz. In all places, people are kind to her, men flirt with her, and the relaxing beauty of the surroundings offers tranquility and calm. This is true even of Paris, which the Parisienne finds so dull but is, after all, one of the great destinations of the world. In one delightful early scene, Delphine and some friends find themselves in conversation with an elderly gentleman who never got these two-month extended breaks the well-off young adults currently enjoy. But he never regretted missing the chance to see the mountains or the beach, and he speaks of all the things there are to do in Paris. "We don't have the sea but we have the Seine. Same thing!" he says, both provincial and wise.

Delphine doesn't listen to him any more than she listens to her friends, and wherever she drifts, she finds ways to avoid people and prevent connections. In Cherbourg, she spots an attractive sailor looking her over, but when she and a friend strike up a conversation, Delphine suddenly pulls away, saying "I got suspicious." Likewise, she ignores a man on the street who unabashedly ogles her, barely pausing to give him her disgust. Roger Ebert attributes such moments as a reaction against gender roles. "She recoils from the pre-packaged lines of the guys she meets in bars and on trains," he writes. "She simply cannot engage in that kind of mindless double-talk any longer. Beneath her boredom is genuine anger at the roles that single women are sometimes expected to play."


But to come to that conclusion ignores Rohmer's approach to gender, which is natural, not polemical. The sexual critiques of My Night at Maud's and Claire's Knee may have put the male perspective under a probing gaze, but if Rohmer doesn't use his women as expressions of male neuroses, as Molly Haskell said, he also doesn't use them as a weapon. The reason women in Rohmer films so deftly frustrate male projections is because they simply are, actual human beings with their own hangups, desires and personalities, not canvases to be painted on.

Furthermore, Delphine's social problems go well beyond sexual frustration, and Ebert misses so much of her character when he summarizes her as "one of those people who does not like to be alone, but who is particular about what sort of company she's in." It is here I must admit a deep personal investment in Delphine because I see so much of myself in her. Delphine is more than just "particular," she is pathologically incapable of being comfortable around people. "I have a lot of things to express, but I don't express them!" she shouts at Béatrice when the latter gives her the aforementioned admonishment. But the defensive, self-pitying tone of her retort betrays a desperate sentiment, a double-edged statement that reveals not only the stubborn pride she takes in not being like those who embarrass her and a wish to not feel embarrassed by completely normal behavior.

The film's best scenes rest gently on Delphine as she slowly kills the atmosphere of geniality and warmth around her. At a beach getaway she will soon abandon because everyone else there is already paired up, Delphine inadvertently kills the buzz at a dinner. As the host sets down a plate of pork chops, she interjects that she doesn't eat meat. But in her attempts to not make a fuss by sticking to her salad, she can't stop talking, harping on that she's fine and that it's no big deal, then starting to criticize others' love of meat. The others try to be polite and even attempt to spin the conversation to naturally bounce off her statements. They ask about her diet and how she gets her protein, and when she begins moralizing about the wrongness of killing animals, one guy even offers that he too used to be squeamish about the blood and violence of meat until he started going to the supermarket instead of a butcher. Delphine gets more and more self-righteous, however, her tone never becoming accusatory but the pleasantness in her voice taking on a passive-aggressiveness that so utterly ruins the vibe that Rohmer can only throw to the next dated intertitle when she finally shuts up, eager to move past this faux pas.

Where dialogue typically serves to bring out a character's being in Rohmer's films, Delphine's nervous sputtering only distance her further from others, the audience, and herself. Returning to that line about not expressing what she has to express, Delphine lacks the ability to communicate, even inadvertently, herself through her own asinine banter the way so many other Rohmer characters can reveal depths about themselves with even the most useless, self-absorbed proclamations. To truly bring out the pitiable person underneath her insufferable exterior, Rohmer uses his visuals. On a topless beach, Delphine walks around in a one-piece. As a tourist in the Alps, the presence of other tourists is made to feel overwhelming as Delphine almost instantly flees back to Paris, not even making out to the ex-boyfriend's cabin she rented.

One scene even devastates: Delphine happens upon some elderly people discussing the Jules Verne book from which the film takes it name, and the sunset phenomenon it describes. Delphine is too self-conscious to join them, so she sneaks around them and sits on a bench below their level, eavesdropping as the camera moves back up to stay with the group. The conversation is intoxicating, a light and enthusiastic chat about a book they all enjoy that becomes touching when the man sitting among the women explains the scientific reasons behind the green flash and makes it sound even more poetic and otherworldly than Verne's prose. But the ever-present awareness of Delphine sitting silently by herself down below, and the implication that the shots up-top are her imagined integration into this group as just another one of the old friends, is acutely sad.

Rivère also sells that sadness through her body acting. Delphine cries often in this movie, but she reveals the contours of her sadness in Rivière's subtle agony in social situations. Near the end of the film, in Biarritz, Delphine meets a Swedish woman, Lena (Carita), who casually sunbathes topless next to the well-covered Parisienne. They hit it off enough to head to lunch together, where Lena attempts to spark a double date with two men checking them out. In a moment painfully true to my own behavior in similar scenarios, Rivière crumbles as Delphine does not become a part of the group but instead bears witness to Lena's calm around the two men and the trading of pleasantries and come ons. Rohmer's camera slowly zooms in on Rivière's face as the situation becomes unbearable and captures her near-breakdown. Rivière starts fidgeting, unable to look anyone in the eye and holding her hand to her temple as a means of shielding her eyes from the source of her misery. Her whole body tenses with the strain of not voicing her pain, and she looks around for an escape before suddenly standing up and running out. It is the best piece of acting I've yet seen in a Rohmer film, an utterly silent communication of a character's deep foibles and insecurities and one I'm so used to acting out myself I could hardly stand to watch this moment.

The proverb that opens this entry in Rohmer's Comedies and Proverbs series is Rimbaud's "Ah! Let the time come/When hearts are enamored!" For Delphine, that "Ah!" is not a poetic invocation but a despairing plea. Yet, on her way back to Paris one last time, Delphine meets a young man who shares her love for Dostoevsky and with whom she can confide some of her insecurities. Delphine, so unwilling to take risks or be around strangers, decides on a whim to cancel her return and instead travel with this man on his own vacation. Rohmer culminates this sudden emergence of humanity with a final scene of the new pair witnessing the rare green ray, a cosmic acknowledgment of Delphine's belated openness to the world that would be a contrivance in anyone else's hands but is a celebration in Rohmer's. The director devotes the entire film to patiently dismantling the protagonist's weak excuses for her isolation, yet in letting Delphine find a foothold to society through the perfect connection she always wanted, he betrays an empathy and care for her that solidifies The Green Ray a work of rich, gentle humanism.


2 comments:

  1. Excellent review Jake. Lots of people actually liked The Green Ray. It personally bored me a little but I think this is the kind of film that grows on someone a while after seeing it.

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  2. Thanks Michael. I hope you give it another chance. I found it to be the most delicate and well-observed of the (admittedly few) Rohmers I've seen.

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