Verbose, narcoleptic, insomnia-curing, even anti-cinematic – Éric Rohmer’s films have been saddled with glib insults that attack his cerebral style. Men and women talk endlessly; nothing, his detractors claim, really happens. In Le Rayon Vert, the late French director’s little-known 1986 masterstroke, one could foolishly claim that nothing really happens. We follow Delphine, a middle-aged Parisienne, over the course of a month, and trudge through her middle-aged misanthropy. Yet everything happens. Through July 5, Film Forum highlights this melancholic study of a woman who suspends herself in fantasy, if only for a moment, from a grim, routine reality.
It is impossible to talk about Le Rayon Vert without speaking of Marie Rivière, the gifted actress who plays Delphine. She is one of Rohmer’s most fascinating female muses. Her performance is largely improvisatory. Lissome and willowy, Delphine moves through life like a ghost; her voice is dewy and soft. Still reeling from a botched engagement two years ago, Delphine has become one of those misanthropes who secretly longs for human contact. She is shrinking on the inside.
As Rivière plays her, though, we understand that there is a glow inside this woman. She lives because she has hope – that she will find the right man, that the happiness she has so refused will eventually wash over her. Something lights her from within, and Rivière – spontaneous, mercurial, radiant – crafts her like one of those young dreamers of classic literature. The hope Delphine lives for is manifested in a myth the film refers to as the “green ray." Adopted from Jules Verne’s novel of the same name, this legend dictates that those who witness a green ray during sunset will suddenly have a window into their own feelings and those of others.
Delphine, like Rohmer, has an understated capacity for fantasy. It is not a petty, childish indulgence. Rohmer was a master of discerning something poetic in the mundane, and so he makes this impulse within Delphine seem sincere. In his films, he has often showed a philosophical fascination with the female. His male protagonists would often spend whole films gently fetishizing and probing the women who fascinated them. This time, Rohmer’s own camera takes the form of these male protagonists. He does not pass judgment on Delphine, a woman who may strike some as insufferable; he simply records her as she thinks out, rationalizes, and articulates her idiosyncrasies.
Something of a departure from Rohmer’s previous works, Le Rayon Vert borrows elements from documentary realism, silent film, Impressionism, classical literature, and even Christian traditionalism to create Delphine’s story. Periodic title cards tell us the date of each episode. Some last sixty seconds, while others last fifteen minutes. When Delphine starts to cry on the steps outside her friend’s apartment, Rohmer’s camera quietly zooms in to survey her sadness. The actors make up their lines as they go; the characters mix, confuse, and stumble over their philosophical ideas like any normal person would do.
Le Rayon Vert is a bit like its heroine – precise, methodical, but also honest, natural, unaffected. She is fussy but never mannered, quirky but not aggressively so. Her flights of fancy don’t seem jarring, because she has a curious blend of pragmatism and youthful naivete that is slightly entrancing. Likewise, Rohmer’s film, one of the most nuanced in his oeuvre, is a master class in subtlety. Delphine’s problems ultimately become our own.