Where There Is Sorrow, There Is Holy Ground
Nick Pinkerton on Le Rayon vert

Always the cine-moralist, Eric Rohmer began his career in an optimistic Christian crusade against a 1940s French cinema that was as knee-jerk Left Bank existentialist as most contemporary art-house fare is lazily Godless. A profoundly religious artist and self-described “classicist,” he was probably the most fogeyish member of a Nouvelle Vague with an oft-ignored conservative strain. He expressed an affinity for the tenets of austere Jansenist Catholicism, heavy on personal grace and predestination, shared by his Cahiers contemporary André Bazin and the journal’s much-favored Bresson. Rohmer’s spiritual polemics, elucidated in his early writings, were often much in accordance with Bazin’s faith-based musings on mise-en-scéne, neorealism, and “total cinema,” making up the theoretical groundwork for a style which the director has practiced with remarkable consistently throughout his devout oeuvre. His stock-in-trade is a relaxed realism whose straightforward visuals face the recognizably secular world head-on. Implicit in this respect for simple, undecorated imagery is his idea that film’s greatest virtue lies in its ability to faithfully isolate, reproduce, and thus exalt the plain wonder of God’s conception. This shows in the director’s relish for the circumlocution of casual conversation as much as in his quiet reverence for the fall of natural light. His focus and faith on the undressed essence of the world, as in the films of Renoir and Bresson, can bring us “back to things themselves,” as Rohmer once wrote, to find God in the face of His creation. It’s in doing this that these works can help even nonbelievers to rediscover the beauty of searching inarticulation, wet paving stones, and strange, skinny bachelorettes.

Marie Rivière’s Delphine, the subject of Le Rayon vert (The Green Ray), corresponds to the latter category nicely: she has a slim ermine face glowing in relief against her inky mass of hair, and unexpected expressions break across her features with the elemental suddenness of flash weather shifts. In keeping with the protagonists of Rohmer’s Comedies and Proverbs cycle, to which Le Rayon vert belongs, Rivière’s Parisian secretary is a confused twentysomething struggling at self-expression and possessed of a modestly scaled personal melodrama. Her vacation time is fast approaching, her friends have all made their own, exclusive plans, and she, still half-clinging in denial to a dissipated romance, has no real lover with whom to escape the fast-emptying capital. Starting her holiday, she drifts from retreat to retreat, with Parisian relapses in between; describing herself as “Sort of in transit… Looking for a better place,” her travels have the aspect of a pilgrimage with no fixed destination, each change of scenery finding her desire to achieve a half-understood idea of “real vacation” equally obscure and unfulfilled.

“Ah, for the days/ that set our hearts ablaze,” reads the film’s preface; taken from Rimbaud’s ‘Chanson de la plus haute tour,’ these words throb with an implacable need that’s close to our heroine’s. But Le Rayon vert’s subtle sense of threat, fueled by the possibility that Delphine’s holiday and life might pass without a transcendent experience of “real vacation,” is best embodied by that poem’s preceding lines: “Idle youth/ Enslaved to everything/ By being too sensitive/ I have wasted my life.” Few have more acutely expressed regret and myopic nostalgia than Rimbaud, that boy-poet with barely enough accumulated life to look back over (“A while back, if I remember right, my life was one long party…”), and his adolescent urgency echo all across Delphine’s journey, communicating a high-stakes certainty that absolute loss or absolute redemption are just at hand.

Rohmer utilizes a simple structuring rejoinder between scenes to underline this race-against-time desperation; the passing dates, handwritten, appear periodically onscreen. In the days preceding Delphine’s vacation, the countdown ticks by threateningly against our heroine’s scramble to solidify her plans, but as it continues to count past her holiday’s beginning, the effect, and the pressure, assume a different tone. Rohmer’s trope makes us aware of the antithetical tension of chartered leisure time; the slim escape from routine that we’re parceled, it’s loaded with an inordinate pressure to recoup for a year of la vie quotidienne’s accumulated, soul-muting attrition. Its looming end is the vacation’s defining moment, and as that terminus pulls closer, the drive to go beyond routine, to “make the most” of the days left, can evolve into a sort of mania, as in the desperate frenzy of high school August.

Our proximity to Delphine’s crisis is deepened as the film’s claustrophobic universe rotates tight around her steady sadness, mirroring the way that depression’s folded-in egoism realigns the world in reference to one’s own irrepressible lack. A flyer on a telephone pole that reads “Get back in Touch with Yourself and Others” then becomes more than a simple advertisement, but a material apparition of her longing. Rohmer conceives these symbols as manifestations of a larger design; through the black cats, portentous playing cards, and horoscopes that embellish his film, the uncanny touches Delphine’s story, leaving untranslated, superstitious messages in its wake. This metaphysical presence looms largest in the titular green ray, a split-second halo produced at the moment when the sun sinks past the horizon. When seen, myth holds, it provides the viewer with a crystal vision of their true self. This enters the narrative via a discussion that Delphine overhears about Jules Verne’s minor novel, Le Rayon vert. And as the conversants describe the book’s heroine, who quests for an edifying glimpse of that light, as being “simple as in a fairy tale,” one might recall an earlier chastisement put toward Delphine: “Do you want Prince Charming, or do you want something?”

“It’s better to wait… than face reality. Better than spoiling your hope,” is Delphine’s answer, and it’s her peculiar quality of trenchant, patient faith that Rohmer is rewarding when he gives his heroine a final glimpse of the green ray and a suggestion of new love. Delphine’s intractability will see no lack of tests; in Biarritz she falls in with a flirtily vivacious, pert-breasted Swede, and this tanned-and-topless little hedonist offers hung-up Delphine counsel with the sensible tone of a sex advice column. With her incurable healthiness and frank appetites, this hearty Scandinavian resembles one of the self-possessed “other” women of Rohmer’s Moral Tales, a breed who tempt him, who he adores, but who are just too much for his (and Delphine’s) pallid constitution. Other friends, family, and acquaintances all offer up their own well-meant assistance and reproach, dressed-up in personal anecdotes and assurances of been-there empathy, but all of it breaks and falls away against the dam of Delphine’s calcified resolve and melancholy. “You must pull yourself out,” is their helpful refrain, which, to someone in the throes of depression, seems about as plausible a request as defying gravity. The advice Delphine gets is mostly sound, reasonable stuff, but she can’t or won’t settle for anything less than profound connection, and, to borrow from Martin Luther, when aspiring to the sacred, “one must tear the eyes out of his reason.”

Rohmer once wrote, in rebuttal to a criticism of the protagonists of his Moral Tales, “My characters’ discourse is not necessarily my film’s discourse,” but in the case of Le Rayon vert, whose heroine he awards approving benediction, it’s hard to ignore the filmmaker’s empathy for his subject. The degree to which one is moved by Delphine’s deliverance, therefore, will probably be limited by the degree to which one shares his affection. This isn’t not always an easy feat; she’s a brat and terrible killjoy, made nauseous by swings, boats, and motion in general, possessed of a hyper-reactive nature that not fit to weather the elements, and a wind-swept field is enough to bring her to tears (Rimbaud again: “Thus to the meadows/ Given over to oblivion.”).

As a po-faced work with a protagonist steeped in such languorous depths of sorrow and faith, Le Rayon vert makes an easy target for accusations of mopey solipsism. It’s easy enough for cynics to reduce Rohmer’s body of work, in the words of one critical brush-off, to nothing but a lot of “skinny girls whinging.” For my part, I think the glib, disassociative contempt that’s often shown onscreen characterizations of weakness and helplessness is nothing short of moronic, especially in contrast to the awed respect that’s gladly afforded to showy displays of violent psychosis. This insipidity was evident in the few dissenting critiques of Lost in Translation; detest Coppola’s film as I do, Scarlett Johanssen’s self-absorption was the least of its problems. When thinking about Le Rayon vert, I’m always oddly put in mind of lyrics from an emotionally irresistible artist who’s also dared to treat gloomy headcases with affection and reverence, and for all this has been made an easy punchline, Steven Patrick Morrissey. I think of the “seaside town that they forgot to close down” in ‘Everyday Is Like Sunday,’ and then also of the narrator of ‘Rusholme Ruffians,’ who assures that “I might walk home alone, but my faith in love is still devout.” I’m usually half-convinced that there’s something really unhealthy in the romantic trenchancy of these lines, but I think they must commune with the same deep-seated centers of longing that, I only suppose, religious sentiment affects. They’re close enough, anyways, to the idea behind Le Rayon vert’s resolution, which is: “Blessed are the meek.” A very Christian notion that, old as it is, isn’t a bit less revolutionary.