Le rayon vert / The Green Ray (1986)

20 08 2013

The timing of a film is really crucial. No, not the timing within the film itself, but when one chooses to watch it. Five years ago I saw Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s and declared it as pretentious, uncinematic garbage that displayed everything I wanted to avoid in film. That disdain has faded, especially after loving Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle. I still see what I disliked about Rohmer, but I find him captivating now. Sure, I’ve matured and changed but a big part of my response to this film is that I can relate to Delphine to an insane degree. Rohmer has captured something so close to my own life that nothing else really matters.

1

It’s the end of July and young people throughout Paris are all making plans for vacations. Delphine isn’t, or rather, she doesn’t know what else to do. This isn’t to say she doesn’t have options, she does, but they all seem uncomfortable. One of her friends invites her along to Cherbourg, but a change in plans results in Delphine returning back to lonely Paris. She keeps trying to have her vacation and she continues to have options. She goes to the mountains, but decides that she’d rather go back to city almost immediately after getting there. While romance is clearly on her mind, she actively avoids any type of flirtatious interactions. She tries one last time to have a decent vacation at the beach.

2

One amusing element about having to revisit Rohmer is the fact that I can actually see in my mind what my reaction would have been just a couple of years ago. This film, even if it looks better than usual for Rohmer, could easily be dismissed as just some girl walking around, talking a lot, and being sad. I mean, that’s exactly what it is but I guess that’s the sort of thing I find vital now. I’ve read reviews online that mention Delphine being annoying and the film being saved by Rohmer’s compassion. This is preposterous, Rohmer and Marie Riviere have created someone so fully realized to reduce her sadness to just “whining” would mean you’re not paying attention or you’re unable to feel sympathy.

3

Riviere does deserve a lot of credit here, because a lot of what she says is ultimately sad longings. Yes, there’s a lot of superficial conversations but they almost all end up with wistful longings. Towards the end, Delphine meets an outgoing Swedish girl who tells her she can’t reveal all of herself right away. She accepts this fact, but it seems to sadden her. In a film filled with words, it’s Riviere’s facial expressions that say the most. In fact, it’s hard not to think of Hong Sang-soo’s Nobody’s Daughter Haewon and that character’s exhaustive sighs when the camera lingers on Riviere’s similarly restless face. It’s not the first comparison one could draw between the directors, but there’s something in these two films in particular that stings a little more than the rest of what I’ve seen from them.

4

Hong’s film isn’t even the only film made in 2013 to feel in debt to Le rayon vert. Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, which was also written as a collaboration between its lead and the director, seems to be mining similar material. I don’t want to make a bunch of modern connections to Rohmer’s film just for the fun of it. I have a point here and it’s that the film still resonates so strongly right now despite the fact that it’s about French yuppies from 25+ years ago. All great art is timeless, but it’s especially striking here because it’s something so deeply personal. I mean, I can only explain that I deeply relate to a character in so many ways, but it’s more than that. Delphine’s disappointments build up and slowly fade into her face. When she does break down in tears, it’s because the burden of anxiety has overwhelmed her to the point that hiding these emotions (which is what she tries for the whole film) is a source of pain itself. As she explains it, “I’m not very operational […] I’m not very functional.”

5

A film that is entirely about one person’s emotional torture sounds a little dire and unwatchable, but it’s to Rohmer’s credit that it never feels like operatic torture. This isn’t The Life of Oharu, Delphine doesn’t need to worry about dying. Instead, her fear is dying alone. While the film does a perfect enough illustration of depicting the loneliness she’s enduring, there a few choice conversations that are just so damn heartbreaking. Admittedly, some of them are so because I feel like I myself have said them before. The early sequence where her friends tell her that she needs to go out, be social, and meet new people reminds me of countless real life conversations I’ve had with friends. Some might say just having a sympathetic character is cheap and not all that of an accomplishment, but she’s not generic nor universal in appeal.

6

Part of me is convinced that my connection to this film might be that it is so damn particular and accurate in drawing a person similar to me that my emotions eventually get in the way. Judging a film (or anything) “objectively” is stupid, if not impossible, though. I don’t think an appreciation of the film is dependent on how much an audience member sees themselves in Delphine. Of course, I see a lot of myself reflected in the character, sure, but it wouldn’t mean as much if she wasn’t so embraceable and fleshed out. I hesitate making Ozu comparisons with anyone, but Rohmer has surely done something within the same vein here. The former would have focused his intentions on making all the characters complete, but Rohmer is interested in only one, Delphine. His focus is narrow because as we see from her interactions, Delphine is seen as someone who can’t earn the focus of people. Others see her as not being worth the emotional investment. She’s too fragile, indecisive, and needy. This is part of what makes her and by extension, the film itself, so amazing.

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