The Green Ray Review

It’s July in Paris and everyone is getting ready to go on holiday. Then, two weeks before, Delphine (Marie Rivière) is phoned at work. It’s her boyfriend and he’s dumping her. With no-one to go with, Delphine sinks into a depression. A friend takes her to Cherbourg but it doesn’t work out, and Delphine returns to Paris. A trip to the Alps is even less successful, but things take a turn for the better in Biarritz…

The Green Ray (Le rayon vert) is known, less appositely, as Summer in the USA, not to be confused with Rohmer’s later film A Summer Tale. The fifth of the six “Comedies and Proverbs”, it won the Golden Lion at the 1986 Venice Film Festival. The film takes its title from a rare effect seen at sunset (sometimes also known as the green flash), caused by the refraction of the sunlight through the earth’s atmosphere, where the sun briefly shines green instead of red just before it disappears over the horizon. Like the other five Comedies and Proverbs, The Green Ray has as its protagonist a woman in her early to mid twenties. Rohmer specialises in “miniplots”, where what happens (which is more tightly organised and structured than it might seem) is less important than what is going through his central characters’ minds as it happens. And for Delphine, as with other Rohmer heroines, what is going through her mind is all-consuming. She lives for her emotions. Rohmer depicts her with an extraordinary level of sensitivity and empathy – considering how well he deals with young people, it’s remarkable that he was well into his sixties when he made this film. This isn’t entirely without irony, though it’s fair to say that his women are shown with less ironic distance than his male protagonists. It’s clear though that Rohmer likes his women more than he does his men, even at their silliest or most self-absorbed.

That’s not to say that Delphine is necessarily immediately likeable. Some people, I should say, find her self-pitying alienating. If that’s the case, you are less likely to respond to this film. There’s little halfway with Delphine: you either love her or you don’t. Marie Rivière has worked for Rohmer several times before and since this film. She first appeared in Perceval in 1978, and played another lead role for Rohmer in 1998’s Autumn Tale. But this is her finest role, and she must take much of the credit for making Delphine as engaging as she is. If you do engage with her, then the ending where the green ray is seen is very moving. The film’s ending is a moment of transcendence: we are left to continue the story in our own minds. (Incidentally, the green ray is a rare example of a Rohmer special visual effect, created in the laboratory after several unsuccessful attempts to film it for real.)

Although the six films in the Comedies and Proverbs are all variations on a theme, Rohmer varied his practice in each one. For a writer-director famed for his use of dialogue, he allowed his cast to improvise a lot of it. For that reason, Marie Rivière receives a credit for her contribution to the script. Too many attempts at improvisation result in shapeless rambling, but Rohmer is in firm control. By this time, he had refined his style to an unaffected naturalism, as if he had simply placed his camera down somewhere and recorded what passed by. But this is a simplicity born of great craft, and it’s deceptive. The camera is always in the right place and the pacing, while certainly measured, is precisely calibrated. Also note the use of the colours red and green as recurring motifs, which are united in the final shot. Rohmer fans will note another regular actress, Béatrice Romand in the small role of Delphine’s friend Béatrice in Paris. Romand’s association with Rohmer goes back even further, to 1970’s Claire’s Knee. She played the lead in the earlier A Good Marriage and went on to co-star with Rivière in Autumn Tale, Rohmer’s first film with middle-aged leads.

Rohmer and his DP Sophie Maintigneux shot The Green Ray in 16mm. The film has always looked soft and grainy, especially in a 35mm blow-up, so this is certainly not going to be DVD reference material. Much of the film, fortunately, takes place in bright sunlight so contrast is good and shadow detail, while not outstanding, is certainly acceptable. Compare this with the darker, more contrasty look of the trailer and the extracts shown in the interview on this DVD, and you’ll see how much better it looks.

The transfer is full-frame. Apart from his first feature The Sign of Leo which is in 1.66:1, all Rohmer’s features up to the 1980s are intended to be shown in Academy Ratio (1.37:1), though many of these – presumably intentionally – could be shown at 1.66:1 without losing too much vital information. However, even in the land of the auteur commercial realities intrude, and it’s presumably hard to find cinemas capable of projecting Academy Ratio properly outside designated arthouses. By the time he made The Green Ray Rohmer had switched to 1.66:1 and the film was certainly shown that way when I saw it on its London release in 1987. However, some sources claim that The Green Ray should be shown in 1.37:1, and certainly there are a handful of shots that look cropped in the wider ratio. As this is a full-frame transfer, anamorphic enhancement is unnecessary.

The sound is the original mono, and it’s entirely adequate for its purpose without being spectacular. Dialogue, sound effects and music are well balanced and clear. More about that music score in a moment. There are twelve chapter stops, and the English subtitles are optional, though you’d have to be more fluent in spoken French than I am to do without them: more than most people’s, Rohmer’s dialogue is vitally important.

There are two extras. First off is the theatrical trailer, which runs 2:18. Unlike the main feature, it’s in 1.66:1 (non-anamorphic). As I mention above, there are a handful of shots in the film which look cropped at this wider ratio, and some of them are in this trailer. The trailer oddly has no subtitles.

The other extra is a radio interview with Rohmer, conducted in 1986 by the critic Serge Daney. Fortunately, this is subtitled into English. The interview runs only 8:30 but Rohmer packs a lot into it. He begins by talking about the film’s music. The Green Ray was his first film with a composed score: all music in his films up to then was played as part of the scene. The main theme of The Green Ray (for musicians out there, it’s C-B-B flat) was composed by Rohmer himself, using as a starting point the letters of Bach’s name as notes, with H meaning B. The credited composer, Jean-Louis Valéro, took this theme and worked it into a fugue that plays over the final scene and end credits. Rohmer discusses the film’s use of red and green (though in most cases the clothes worn were the actors’) and the three moments of Delphine’s “solitude in nature” which punctuate the film. It’s fascinating stuff, which told me things I didn’t know about this film. You wish there were more of it. The audio plays against a background of either the film’s title card, the music score, or illustrative extracts from The Green Ray, Pauline at the Beach, The Aviator’s Wife, A Good Marriage, My Night at Maud’s, Full Moon in Paris and My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend.

The Green Ray is one of Rohmer’s very best films, and its release on this all-regions disc from Arrow is most welcome. Pictorially, this film will never be reference-quality, but it looks very good here, and the interview is a first-rate extra.

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