Friday, June 24, 2011

Eric Rohmer's Rayon of Light


Delphine gets a phone call one day early in July while she's at work. It's her friend Caroline calling her up to break some bad news to her: She has decided not to accompany her on vacation to Greece after all. So who's going to go with her now? Is she doomed to go on vacation by herself? Is it even worth going on vacation by herself?

For Delphine, this has all the force of a seismic shift; at least, she seems to treat it as such around friends who try to comfort her. But Eric Rohmer knows better. In his 1986 "Comedies & Proverbs" film Le Rayon Vert—released in the U.S. as Summer—the late, great French filmmaker  exposes her worries as overblown in the grand scheme of things, yet refuses to look down upon her plight.

Or it could just be that I so thoroughly understood her desperation on an intimately personal level that I couldn't help but empathize. In October of 2009, I visited Hong Kong for about a week, much of that time spent exploring the area on my own. I had a lovely time there, don't get me wrong, and there's something to be said for the freedom you have in exploring an unfamiliar area by yourself without the arguable burden of being tied down to other traveling companions' desires and expectations. For all the pleasures afforded by solo traveling, however, there were about as many instances when I found myself taking in a beautiful sight—say, walking along the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade overlooking Victoria Harbour (the source of the photo above)—or walking amidst a bevy of natives and fellow tourists, and feeling the full weight of loneliness, wishing I could share my excitement with someone else—or, at least, someone in the flesh rather than just online.

It's not the most pleasant of sensations, to say the least. So when Delphine responds in the negative to a friend's suggestion that she simply go to Greece by herself, I completely got where she was coming from. Not everyone can be Rainer Maria Rilke and treasure their solitude—at least, not all the time.

Rohmer, with the invaluable assistance of lead actress Marie Rivière (they are both credited with coming up with the script), gradually reveals, however, that Delphine's desperation as a result of Caroline's bombshell announcement suggests a far deeper malaise, one seemingly borne out of a broken-off engagement two years ago that she apparently still hasn't gotten over. The film doesn't get much into the particulars of this aborted engagement; it's simply a fact of her past, and it is still having an effect on her in the present, manifesting itself in occasional crying jags, denial, anti-social streaks and so on.

Clearly, whatever happened to her to get her to this point, she isn't as happy as she claims, especially when it comes to her love life. Throughout the film, though, Rohmer shows us situations in which Delphine has a chance to try to curb some of that unhappiness, but—through an elusive combination of pride, overintellectualizing and self-pity—is unable or unwilling to cross that bridge. Her more outgoing friend Françoise (Rosette) invites her to stay with her family in Cherbourg, but instead of venturing out and socializing with people, she mostly sticks around the house, playing with the kids and occasionally going off to the nearby woods to quietly mope. Back in the Left Bank, where she lives, a random guy eyes her while she's sitting on a bench; he follows her and tries to engage her, but she turns to him and flat-out refuses his overtures.

Perhaps, most tellingly, while she vacations in Biarritz—a town near the Bay of Biscay in France—she gets into a conversation with a Swedish woman named Lena (Carita) who is much more gregarious than she is (hell, when they meet, she's sunbathing while fully topless); while they both share a drink, Lena calls over a couple of guys and starts flirting with them. What does Delphine do while all this goes down? She just sits there, looking more uncomfortable by the minute, not even bothering to jump into the conversation even when Lena tries to give her cues to join in. Finally, she can't take it anymore, gets up and flees back to her hotel room, already thinking of leaving the next day.

I know what I was thinking when I witnessed this agonizingly prolonged scene: Come on, Delphine, just say something! Don't just sit there and wallow in your own misery! Take some action and do something to fix it! And yet...I understand the impulse to wallow all too well.

Change can be hard sometimes. You get locked into certain ways of thinking, however damaging or destructive they may be, and you become comfortable with them; they become almost a crutch, an excuse to stay complacent. Believe it or not, this can be the case with misery as well—especially that of the self-pitying kind. To actually have to change your whole outlook regarding a certain situation, to step outside of your comfort zone in order to try to effect that positive outcome you so desperately desire: For some, the prospect of doing so can be so immediately daunting that it's much easier to retreat to the idea that you can't change who you are, that there isn't much you can do to change the way things are going in your life in the moment. Retreating to such an arguably defeatist attitude can become perversely pleasurable in a way: It temporarily takes the load off of you actually having to do anything—at least, until the next situation comes along, as it inevitably will, and you're once again faced with the same choice.

Of course, then you may feel the need to come up with elaborate intellectual defenses of your defeatism, to reconcile it in your mind. Often you might say that you're just being "realistic." Someone tells you that it's all just a matter of "changing your attitude," and your immediate response might be to say, "People just don't change their attitude about things on the flick of a switch. That's not how one's mind works." But really, how true is that? Have you actually made an honest attempt at changing your attitude about something? I mean, on the face of it, it doesn't seem like such a hard thing to do, does it? And yet, as the well-known saying goes, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak...

I'm no psychologist, obviously, but it's this kind of tentativeness that I see in Delphine. Not only do I see it in those many private flights of sustained moping, or in those long sequences in which she wanders around by herself; I hear it not only in her denials whenever friends suggest she's deeply unhappy, but in that aforementioned painfully revealing sequence in Biarritz, when she expresses to Lena her belief that if she really did have something special to offer romantically, guys would see it and act upon it. Does she truly believe this, or has she swallowed this bit of self-hatred so completely that, when pressed, she'll desperately repeat this as a way to excuse her stagnant love life? Maybe more to the point: Is she such a hopeless romantic that she believes that love really does just happen at first sight, like that? (If I remember correctly, there are hints in the film that this might have been one reason why she broke off her engagement two years ago.)

The title of Rohmer's film translates to The Green Ray in English, and it's a reference to Jules Verne's novel by the same name. At one point while wandering around in Biarritz, Delphine overhears a few elderly people discussing the work in detail. According to them, the Green Ray of Verne's novel is a super-rare meteorological phenomenon: a green ray of light that can only be glimpsed either after sunset or before sunrise. The characters in the novel are obsessed with finding it, believing that getting a glimpse of it will heighten their own perceptions of the thoughts and feelings of themselves and those around them. In that sense, the title could almost be interpreted as a kind of statement of purpose on Rohmer's part: Here is a film that will heighten the audience's perceptions of the thoughts and feelings of this one character, and maybe even do the same for your own. And while Le Rayon Vert is grounded in the specific details of this particular character, Rohmer leaves out just enough of her backstory, and maintains just enough detachment, for us to possibly see bits of ourselves in Delphine. Not everyone will attach the same intense personal identification that I found myself doing early and often in this film, of course; and it's quite possible that one's psychological profile of Delphine might differ from another's. I think that's just part and parcel, though, of an immensely rich and humane piece of cinema, one that I haven't stopped thinking about since seeing it for the first time ever early last week.

The more I think about Delphine, the more I realize that in many ways, I am Delphine. I leave it to you all, dear readers, to determine whether this post functions as an in-depth dissection of Delphine or merely a projection of my own neuroses onto her's.

For those in New York who missed the new 35mm print of Le Rayon Vert during its recent brief run at Brooklyn Academy of Music, Film Forum is screening that print from July 1-5. I highly recommend seeing it, obviously.

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