Life Abroad No. 4: The Green Ray (Le Rayon Vert; 1986)

All of Eric Rohmer’s films in his series of Comedies and Proverbs begin with a quotation.
The Green Ray’s: ‘Ah! Que le temps vienne/Oú les coeurs s’éprennent.’ ‘Ah, for the days/that set our hearts ablaze.’

Rimbaud (‘Chanson de la plus haute tour’/ ‘Song of the Highest Tower’ 1872)

In Unrelated, we saw a character attempting to escape paralysis by going on holiday. Rohmer places the action in a more inert state of mind: the inability to go on holiday. We are trapped with Delphine as she spends the month of August (the traditional month for the French to spend away from their home) going on a series of abortive, emotionally isolating holidays.

The title cards that mark off the dates of the film are handwritten and, besides offering a sad reminder of the waste of her salad days, it is a hint to the film’s heart-rending intimacy: we are reading Delphine’s diary, uncovering scenes too personal even to be spoken aloud. And just as when we come upon an unknown’s journal, we feel initially excited by the immorality of invading someone’s privacy, then dissatisfied by the tedium of the details, then ultimately engrossed by the unfolding of their world, day by day. The ultimate feeling is that, regardless of the actual content, stealing this intimacy, is utterly compelling.[1]

Perhaps the main reason that few films treat subjects as closely and honestly as Delphine’s is the fear of the banality of the real. Many in the filmmaking community shared this view. “I went to the head of television at the time,” said Barbet Schroeder, Rohmer’s first producer. ‘He threw the screenplay on the ground and said, ‘You pick it up. I’m sorry, but this is filmed theatre.’” The opening scene offers us the premise for the whole film, setting up the incredibly low stakes of the drama. Delphine is stuck in Paris for the summer, after being ditched by a girlfriend. She seems to be reacting more to the inconvenience than the snub, and Rohmer’s staging emphasises how quotidian these events are. Without as much as a close up, or even a halt to the conversation between her colleagues, Delphine’s ‘tragedy’ is unfolded.

There’s an inherent mockery to placing Delphine in contrast to the heroic statues in one of the film’s early scenes: her Atlus-like ennui threatens to derail all sympathy in the first third of the film. We are more likely to side with the friend who attacks her inertia at the tea party. Yet as we gather a fuller picture of how her days are filled, we cannot help but become sympathetic from this wider context.

Rohmer and Marie Riviére manage to make the sufferings of a woman on holiday as emotionally resonant as Joan on the pyre. Expression and intensity are central to this.

Although the film never attempts to elevate her troubles, the honesty, intimacy and concentration with which we are invited into her world ensures that this drama does achieve the solipsistic urgency of life as we all live it. Rohmer’s easy pace is essential to this power, as he explained: ‘When filming, it’s usually: ‘Camera,’ then ‘Clapper,’ then ‘Action.’ I did the opposite. First I said, ‘Action!’ Then if it was going well I tapped the cameraman and he started filming.” When a serendipitous or troubling detail falls into Delphine’s path, we are travelling at the right speed (the speed of life as it is lived), with a sensitive enough eye to notice the details. Although this film is from Rohmer’s Comedies and Proverbs rather than from his Six Moral Tales, this is a quietly moral tale. As in the best melodrama, a rich panorama of suffering is opened up, a sensitivity to the experience of others that is perhaps the most crucial moral tool.


[1] This is key to the appeal of the diary novel over its brother the epistolary novel. While both share a supposedly naturalistic, but in practice, highly artificial narrative framework, the clog of subjectivity becomes an effective focus, days themselves acquiring a strange serialized interest. The realism of the groan worthy longeurs of these novels is always thankfully partnered with the equally realistic sudden change of events. Anyone who has read I Capture the Castle, The Diary of a Nobody or – god help me – Bridget Jones late into the night will recognise this emotion.

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