Earlier this summer, we took a look at late French master filmmaker and critic Eric Rohmer and the Six Moral Tales that more or less launched his on screen career. While those films – often taken as a whole – contain some of Rohmer’s best work, his best film belongs to the next, less lauded, but still exceptional cycle of films that he produced. Post-Moral Tales, Rohmer dabbled in literary adaptations before launching into his Comedies and Proverbs series. Finding their basis in simple proverbs, usually dealing with love, relationships, and subtle political leanings, the fifth of these six films has been seen by many as the finest work he ever produced.
Le Rayon Vert (screening on Thursday, August 11, 2016 at TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of Dangerous Liaisons: The Films of Eric Rohmer) was released in North America under the title of Summer, which is somewhat confusing in retrospect since his next cycle of films to immediately follow Comedies and Proverbs were tales from each season of the year. The fourth of Rohmer’s ten collaborations with leading actress Marie Rivière (who will be on hand to introduce the Lightbox screening as part of a double bill with her 2010 feature length documentary look at Rohmer, En compagnie d’Eric Rohmer), it was initially met with a mixture of critical acclaim – garnering both the Golden Lion and FIPRESCI prizes at the 1986 Venice Film Festival – and head-scratching, but time has proven that Le Rayon Vert has more emotional staying power than Rohmer’s previous and following works.
Like most Rohmer works, it’s a simple story. Delphine (Rivière) gets hit with some bad news while she’s at work, only a couple of weeks before she’s about to take off for her summer vacation. Dumped by her boyfriend, she learns that her best friend is now accompanying Delphine’s ex on the trip to Greece the former couple planned, instead of travelling with Delphine to Paris. Still reeling, but mostly annoyed that she might have to spend time in Paris alone during a time when most people leave for vacation, she reluctantly agrees to accompany a friend’s family to Cherbourg. When she realizes that she doesn’t fit in with the other vacationers in her party – both socially and ideologically – she briefly returns to Paris to contact an old friend and see if his vacation property in the Alps is unoccupied. She goes, but immediately returns after being turned off by the touristy nature of the village the house is located in. Again she regroups and finally faces her biggest fear of vacationing alone, but after meeting a flirty fellow solo traveller in Biarritz, Lena (Carita), she realizes devastatingly the push and pull between her desire to be around others and her inability to interact with them.
Le Rayon Vert stands as Rohmer’s most instantly accessible work and the best primer for audiences who might not be familiar with his deliberately paced style of filmmaking and conversation. It’s also, in many respects, a break from tradition for the French auteur. Unlike most of his other works (outside of his adaptations, and although this film owes no small amount of subtextual inspiration to a Jules Verne story), Le Rayon Vert has a rather clear act structure and sense of escalation. While still shooting on textured 16mm film for maximum intimacy and utilizing natural sounds and locations for a sense of realism, Le Rayon Vert features one of the only times Rohmer briefly uses music for a film to underscore emotion and add texture. While the camera of cinematographer Sophie Maintigneux remains unobtrusive, Rohmer (who said he was influenced by the form and function of television interviews for this film’s aesthetic) allows for a more fluid range of visual motion. An awkward dinner sequence where Delphine’s Cherbourg hosts deride her for being a vegetarian has the camera panning from left to right in a bid to give off a subtle feeling of being overwhelmed. During a scene late in the film where our protagonist becomes increasingly annoyed by a pair of travellers hollowly flirting with her and Lena, Rohmer slowly pushes the camera in on Delphine’s pained, annoyed, and anguished face until the banality of the conversation being depicted drifts away and all that’s left is unfiltered sorrow.
Le Rayon Vert not only serves as a satirical takedown of the leisure class and offers up a look at the pitfalls of vacationing and the fear of missing out on seasonal cultural signifiers, but it also poignantly becomes one of the most purposefully unnerving and moving looks at social anxiety. Via Rivière’s best performance and a story that feels deeply personal to the usually media shy Rohmer, the film depicts a world where people are constantly telling the protagonist to “forget your troubles,” but the phrase rings eternally hollow. Not long after the aforementioned dinner sequence in Cherbourg, Delphine takes a solitary sojourn through the countryside, and once she’s content that she has left civilization behind for a moment, begins to weep. With each passing dejection and disappointment, one fears that our deeply humane heroine might not find any sort of solace or enjoyment, but thankfully Rohmer ends the film on a note of conflicted hope for the future.
Rivière taps into something deep inside of all human beings here. Le Rayon Vert looks at how no one wants to truly be left alone, but rather how we dictate our own terms on how we choose to interact with the world around us. It’s a film aimed squarely at those unnecessarily chipper types who think you should suck it up every time you feel less than ecstatic about the world around you. Everyone has these moments, and Rohmer has crafted the best cinematic look at someone going through a quietly uncomfortable time while everyone around her seems contented to engage in frivolities. Delphine doesn’t know exactly what will make her feel better, but she doesn’t want to take suggestions from others as to what she should do. If you’ve ever felt that way in your life, Le Rayon Vert will bring all of those feelings bubbling back to the surface, reassuring viewers that it’s perfectly okay to feel that way.