Monday, December 3, 2012

The Green Ray AKA Summer (1986): Rohmer’s Female Loner





I was interested in this film first of all because it’s supposed to be one of Eric Rohmer’s better movies, and after decades of spurning his work I’ve recently come round to a more positive view of him. I saw films like Claire’s Knee, Chloe in the Afternoon and Pauline at the Beach over 20 years ago and wasn’t very impressed. A ‘Rohmer film’ of course is sometimes jokily considered as a by-word for a certain type of European film that has no drama or thrust, just effete bourgeois people sitting around talking nonsense in their summer homes. But earlier this year I saw Ma Nuit Chez Maud (1969) and loved it. When most people think of films by this director they think of summery concoctions in colour from the 70’s or 80’s. So Ma Nuit Chez Maud was an atypical work, since it was filmed in black and white, had a wintry setting, and featured the stern seriousness of Jean-Louis Trintignant. Yet soon afterwards I re-watched Claire’s Knee, which is a summery concoction (from 1971), and I enjoyed that too this time. Though it had some dubious ideas about romantic feelings between girls in their mid-teens and men in their thirties, it was clearly a sophisticated work. So I thought maybe I should give some of his other summery concoctions a chance. I was also interested because The Green Ray is mentioned at least three times in Sight and Sound’s September 2012 issue covering their ‘Greatest Films Ever’ poll. British director Joanna Hogg, French director Mia Hansen-Love and South Korean director Hong Sangsoo all put it in their all-time top 10.

Now I wouldn’t go so far as to put it in my top 10, but it is a very interesting film. You can see why these two female directors might value it highly because, after all, how many films are devoted entirely to being a character study of a particular woman? (I can think of only a few examples - The Passion of Joan of Arc perhaps, Nights of Cabiria, and Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles. After that it’s films which feature women in the central role - Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Sophie’s Choice, etc- but which aren’t entirely character studies). And how many films deal solely with the ups and downs of a modern woman’s emotional life? Even less of course. And how many are about a woman who’s a loner? Virtually none.

It was this aspect that really struck me and which I particularly enjoyed. I can’t remember ever seeing a realistic female loner before in a movie; usually if a female character is a loner she must be some kind of action hero - see Nikita, Hanna, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo etc. The loner aspect (there’s much discussion in the film about whether or not she is actually ‘lonely’) means that Marie Riviere in the main role as Delphine dominates the entire running-time. She has an ex-boyfriend on the other end of the phone occasionally but not until the very end is there even the prospect of an actual flesh-and-blood ‘man in her life’.

The Green Ray is an excellent portrayal of someone who is emotionally frail and thus stand-offish. Delphine keeps bursting into tears throughout the film, often when she’s with a group of people, whom she then decides she has to get away from. It’s excellent because it gives you all the usual arguments against this kind of behaviour in the form of friends and acquaintances who keep telling her to get over herself, make an effort to meet someone new, etc. Yet all the time you feel it’s not as simple as that. Delphine can’t fall into line with their exhortations to be more outgoing and fun because for her intimacy without feeling is worse than no intimacy at all (she gets to explain some of this in one of the final scenes of the movie). She’s sensitive to all kinds of things other people are not, like eating meat, and taking her top off to sunbathe, and she can’t be happy and carefree like the Swedish girl she meets at the beach because her requirements from life are different and more idealistic and nuanced.

This is one of the best films ever about those times when you don’t want to be around people, because your emotions are in irrational turmoil and can’t be understood by others. At one point Delphine goes to the trouble of arranging accommodation at a ski resort and travelling all the way there, only to decide within hours that she can’t stay a single minute longer, mystifying the guy who’s been keeping the room-keys for her. At another point she stays with a family - friends of a friend - and though they are very nice to her, she abruptly decides she has to leave immediately (the only ones she could really talk to, anyway, were their kids). On another occasion, with the Swedish girl and two guys who sit down with them at a restaurant, the conversation becomes too light-hearted and fancy-free for her, and she can’t stand it; she has to flee.

Most of the best scenes in this movie are in the second half, after Delphine goes to Biarritz, and in particular there are two great scenes which lift the story to a higher level. The first is when she’s wandering around alone (as usual) and overhears some people talking about the Jules Verne novel The Green Ray and the atmospheric phenomenon of a green ray - something that happens very occasionally during a sunset. The second is the final scene, where all this talk of green rays gets a physical embodiment. This finale is predictable, you might say, but sometimes even predictable scenes can be very pleasing if you’ve become invested in a character and the actor makes you feel what they’re feeling. So check out this film if you don’t already know it. Overlook the occasional longeurs of the first half, the terrible fashion-sense of French men in 1986, and the fact that it does initially seem to be about ‘effete bourgeois people sitting around talking nonsense in their summer homes’. Stick around until the wonderful ending. The Green Ray won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and it deserved it.

For 80 screenshots from the film, click here
 

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