LE RAYON VERT (Summer) B
France (98 mi) 1986 d: Éric Rohmer
Winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1986, and the fifth of Éric Rohmer's six-film cycle of Comédies et Proverbes, this plays out like an interior road movie, something of a travelogue to various summer vacation destinations in France, as expressed through the existential ambivalence of the weary traveler, Marie Rivière as Delphine, a girl who gets dumped over the phone in the opening moments of the film, where what’s really troubling her is not the failed relationship or losing the guy, but her two week summer vacation is coming up and she’ll have no one to spend it with. This sends her into a tailspin of despair continually questioning her failing self-esteem. Using a diary-like progression, where the passing days are listed on the screen, Rohmer reveals sketchy little episodes from her life, which could, over time, reveal the complexities of her character as it becomes more and more exposed, but instead she remains stifled in an emotional standstill with a petrifying fear of intimacy. Delphine feels particularly delicate and fragile, where it’s easy to feel sorry for herself, refusing the positive overtures expressed from her Parisian friends, suggesting this is an opportunity to meet someone new, all of whom seem to have friends or relatives with empty summer homes that are available in August, when nearly the entire country takes their vacations. While Delphine herself is a secretary, not at all a high paying position, there is no explanation for the sudden display of wealth except to suggest they all may come from wealthy families, so her problems reflect the income range and social status of those who have the luxury to perpetually dwell on themselves for days on end. Unable to spend her vacation alone, she initially discovers the port city of Cherbourg, which she visits with a friend and her family that openly welcome her, but she returns to Paris almost immediately, feeling out of place and uncomfortable, as she can’t really explain what she’s doing there, and every feeble attempt only makes her feel worse, where she’s constantly on the defensive having to justify being alone.
One of the beauties of this film is the cinéma vérité style, using natural sound and a camera that follows Delphine for the entire duration of the film, shot on 16 mm, then blown up to 35 mm, using a 4:3 box aspect ratio that continually focuses the attention on the central figure. In this manner, despite her visits to colorful outdoor locations, she remains confined in this box, unable to escape the trap she has seemingly set for herself. Now resigned to accept the inevitable, having to spend the rest of her vacation alone, she travels instead to the mountains where a friend is holding a key, but after a hike to a superlative panoramic view of the Alps, she returns back to Paris the same day, worn out and defeated, but mostly disgusted with herself. Her constant return to her own misery does become annoying after awhile, a cyclical broken record playing again and again, yet that is the central premise of the film, self-disgust, which ironically takes place at some of the most stunningly beautiful locations in France. When she hits the sunny beaches of Biarritz, a beautiful coastal city lined with hotels, where the beaches are filled with playful activities and everyone seems happy, it’s like a drearily realistic counterpunch to Jacques Tati’s MR. HULOT’S HOLIDAY (1953), which continually pokes fun at the stress people endure in the pretense of convincing others that they’re actually having fun. Delphine is under no such illusion. When a beautiful young topless Swedish blond (Carita, one has to wonder how could she have never made another film?) struts her way through the teeming throng at the beach, her cheerful, liberated body language the exact opposite of Delphine’s dour repression, finding her towel next to Delphine’s, she strikes up an instant friendship, convinced she knows how to overcome her defeatist mood, immediately picking up a couple of guys. But this kind of obnoxiously forced intimacy makes Delphine flee in disgust, unable to endure another moment.
While this style of endurance test narrative may even be somewhat conventional by now, much like the Biblical struggles of Job, where one must be put to the ultimate test before discovering what really matters in life, Marie Rivière apparently improvised a great deal of her extensive role, where Rohmer actually names her as a collaborative screenwriter. While she plays a relatively young character, her complete mistrust of being alone may puzzle some people, as one doesn’t always play out their interior psychological dramas in full public view, as she does here, never opting for alone time. Delphine carries a book with her in public, Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, but despite the gorgeous locales, we never see her reading alone, where many find this an excellent way to nourish scarred or damaged souls. Instead she openly parades her melancholia, doing little on her own to rebuild her shattered confidence. Purely by chance, she overhears an avid discussion about the Jules Verne novel Le Rayon Vert, something of a fairy tale love story that hints at a rare magical moment just after a perfectly clear sundown, nearly impossible to see, where legend has it that in the last instant, just after the sun sets, a flash of green is the last thing seen by the human eye, where if you’re fortunate enough to see it, you can read your own feelings and those of others as well, where your perceptions are greatly illuminated at that moment. In the book, the young lovers who have been searching for the green light become fixated on the love in each other’s eyes, never bothering to look on the horizon. With this in mind, Rohmer gives himself some leeway, as after a meticulous exposé of blistering honesty, where basically Rivière just won’t shut up about her problems, an uncomfortable human drama that leaves many in the audience disillusioned by her building distrust for the entire human race, the director builds himself a pathway to the horizon, where real or imagined, fate may ultimately have the upper hand.