The Green Ray (1986)

Dir. Eric Rohmer. Starring Marie Rivière.

In cinematic heaven, there’s a special mansion for movies which are willing to lay it all on the line for their endings. Not a twist, precisely. It’s not about surprising us. It’s about wagering that a final scene, or even a last shot, will be sufficient to linger with the viewers for hours and days. This taxonomy does not merely include any movie with a good ending. The last minute or so of The Godfather caps off a tremendous movie, but one has decided long before the end of that movie whether or not it works. It is a movie filled to the brim with events and happenings, and as good as that ending is it will not make up our minds for us about the quality of the picture. The mansion I’m thinking of contains movies which are not filled with so many rewatchable scenes, which never attempted to throttle the viewer with action. In Rohmer’s filmography, Claire’s Knee stands out. So do OrdetThe Straight Story, Au hasard Balthazar. And while not quite up to the standard of those four movies, two of which deserve to be listed towards the very top of any list of the greatest pictures ever made, The Green Ray has a room in that mansion.

Delphine (Rivière) is a difficult presence, someone who in 1986 might have been “high-maintenance” but in the more careful parlance of 2019 must be “troubled” instead, or “hurting,” maybe even “grieving.” There’s a jokey moment early on where she tells a group of girlfriends that she’s never had a seance to help her find a man before, but how else should we describe her contact with Jean-Pierre? She only speaks to him on the phone, where we cannot see him. He is remembered, not present; his body does not displace any molecules in her presence, although her memory of him displaces her entire affect. In Evita, the title character sings “Oh, but it’s sad when a love affair dies,” a statement countered by Che’s interpretations of her false regret. In The Green Ray that sentence is an entirely literal one. The love affair between Jean-Pierre and Delphine died, and no two months of vacation, despite her efforts, can resuscitate that good feelings she had before. Rivière’s performance is an iceberg performance, in which her needy self-absorption is a symptom of a much deeper pain. It’s an awfully brave choice to make Delphine this annoying. It is far braver than making a character evil, which I find rather a daunting statement about the state of our movies. There is nothing cool about Delphine’s pining, whereas there is something tremendously cool about characters who are violent or cruel. Thus this is one of the only movies I can think about which allows us to really sympathize with someone neck-deep in this sort of noxious self-regard, where I’m sure I could rattle off two dozen movies which rapturously portray some genuine wickedness for its audience to ogle.

We remember the boy or girl from middle school or maybe early high school who always seemed in a whirlpool of their own despair, sucked in by their own troubles and entirely fascinated by them. They come to define themselves with that self-obsession; to cure one’s ills would be to eliminate the self, and thus they cannot afford to fix or change themselves. In a child of twelve or thirteen this is galling; in a grown woman this is out-and-out maddening. Delphine is a vegetarian in France in the ’80s, which cannot have been a popular decision, and her reasoning is based on the sympathy she feels for creatures. It’s a brave choice, and given a few decades to sit, admirable. Dinner is served: pork chops (“rare or very rare”) are the main dish. There are other ways that she might have approached this situation. She could have told her hosts earlier that she doesn’t eat meat, and thus they might have given her something else; she might simply pass over the pork chops and eat salad quietly until someone noticed; she might lie and say that she isn’t feeling quite up to a hearty meal. All of these are possibilities, and she chooses instead to proclaim, anxiously but slyly, that she does not eat meat. She is a vegetarian. This of course surprises the rest of the table, from her hostess (embarrassed, outside the camera: “You should have told us”) to the other guests (slightly ironic). What this does is give her a stepladder to declaim from. For minutes she holds forth, answering questions, rejecting flowers as cuisine for the same reason she rejects flesh, discussing the violence of the butcher’s, talking about protein. Rivière is as clever as Delphine here; we can see her beginning to luxuriate in this amount of attention, which is of course why she didn’t take any of the other approaches to the situation. Having felt alone and abandoned, any kind of gaze will do here.

It’s a step up from the self-pity she feels in an earlier scene where she laments to a friend that she has no vacation plans post-Jean-Pierre. The friend misreads the situation, suggesting a man she could travel with, a number of trips, a number of reasons she could go abroad on her own. Delphine is not looking for a solution, but for someone to tell her she’s been wronged, someone to say unironically that great injustice has been done to her. In short, she wants to wallow, which is an inclination that we’ve been taught to make secret, which of course no one is capable of when they actually feel like wallowing. It’s why a budding friendship with a Swede traveling alone in Biarritz falters. This Swedish lady is as open a book as they come, perfectly happy to swim and sunbathe nude while Delphine is practically American in how clammed up she is. When two French fellows come along looking for a good time, a lengthy and slightly dull flirtation (then again, most flirtations excepting oneself are dreary) sparks between the Swede and one of the Frenchmen. Delphine puts her head in her hand, like she’s suddenly pushing away a migraine. It gets cutesier. It expands into different languages. There’s a sing-song swaying between the two of them. Delphine picks up and leaves. In the presence of this sort of happy togetherness, her isolation is all the more raw, and even the other Frenchman’s pursuit of her down some steps, like a boy following a girl at the seventh-grade dance walking out of the gym and into the hallway, is no salve.

The most desperate among us have a way of seeking signs wheresoever they come from. The color green is such a one for Delphine, having been told by a medium that her color this year will be green. She finds playing cards strewn about—a little more Deadwood than Paris—and takes notes of which figures appear on them. Others in the movie care about their horoscopes, but only she is in two such scenes in which her status as a Capricorn is talked about. (Apparently they’re isolated and frigid types? It fits, if that’s so.) She eavesdrops on a conversation about the green ray, an atmospheric oddity that only appears when the right weather conditions arise. A bearded old man goes into the science of the thing, saying that he himself has only seen the green ray five times or so in his life. It’s a trick of the light, as it were, or maybe a trick of the atmosphere; in any event it’s understood to be a shorthand for epiphany, for seeing clearly where one could not see clearly before. Obviously the idea enraptures Delphine; not only is it in the color of the year, but it would mean she understands what she did not understand before, that happy days might be here again. It almost goes without saying that Delphine, with a new model, sees that green ray with a man near her. It’s the seeing of it, though, which makes this movie belong with the roommates it has in those mansions of rest. For one thing, Rohmer has an absolutely stunning shot, postcard beautiful, just as he did before when the old man narrated the physics of the green ray. The screen is cut in half, with the falling sun a marker between the great orange of the sky and the corresponding great blue of the sea. When the green ray appears—surely it must, one believes with the faith of a child…or a woman in her late twenties, early thirties who is waiting for a sign—she yelps with pleasure and grabs the fellow tightly. It’s a lovely ending, to be sure, but it’s lovely because Delphine has it backwards. She already changed herself when she picked this guy up at the railroad station, pulled herself out of her wallowin’ pool and onto the dry beach of action. The world is not giving her a sign that all will be well; it’s giving her a sign that she’s already changed, against the odds, and that she has always had the power to change herself.

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