Eric Rohmer Collection: The Green Ray Review
The Eric Rohmer Collection is a box set of ten films on nine Blu-ray discs, released in a limited edition of 2000 by Arrow Academy. These reviews are a disc at a time, the films being reviewed in chronological order, except for those on the final disc. To read the other reviews, please click on the “Eric Rohmer Collection” tag below.
Part of the following is revised and updated from my DVD review of The Green Ray, written for this site in 2004.
It’s July in Paris and everyone is getting ready to go on holiday. Then, two weeks before she's due to leave, secretary 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) was the fifth out of six of Rohmer's Comedies and Proverbs and won the Golden Lion at the 1986 Venice Film Festival. (It was released in the USA as Summer, which inevitably causes confusion with the later A Summer's Tale. Its working title was Aoûtiennes, or August Chronicles.) 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 lbriefly shines green instead of red jujst before it disappears over the horizon. At this moment we can, it's said, see ourselves more clearly. The film ends on just such an epiphany.
Like the other five Comedies and Proverbs, The Green Ray has as its protagonist a woman in her early to mid twenties. 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. 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. She's sunk in self-pity, and no doubt you could say that the inability to go on holiday as planned is very much a first world problem. There's little halfway with her, but if you do engage with her, then the ending is very moving, a moment of transcendence. We are left to continue the story in our own minds. On the way, Delphine receives several portents and signs – not for nothing does she find a green-backed Tarot card lying in the street. With an emphasis on the workings of fate and moments of transcendence, Rohmer moves a little towards Kieślowski territory (as he also does in the later A Winter's Tale) though his style and methods are very different. He continues the theme to some extent, except at the start of the day instead of at its end, in his next film, Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle, which is on the final disc of Arrow's Blu-ray box set.
The Green Ray was made on a very small budget: originally 2 million francs, which doubled due to processing expenses, and difficulties in capturing the green ray on film (see below). To put that in perspective, Claude Berri's big hits Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources, made around the same time, cost around eighty million. In this film, Rohmer made a considerable departure from his usual practice. Previously, he'd conducted long tape-recorded interviews with his leading players and included material from these in his scripts. However, this time, there was no script. The film was improvised around Marie Rivière's character, to the extent where she receives a writing credit. Rohmer shot the film on 16mm taking Rivière and an all-female crew of three (Sophie Maintigneux making her debut as a cinematographer – she had one credit as a camera assistant before this) around all the French locations of the story. The supporting cast is made up of other Rohmer regulars in small roles (Béatrice Romand, Rosette, Vincent Gauthier, Lisa Hérédia, the last-named also the film's editor under her real name of Maria-Luisa Garcia), members of the families of Marie Rivière and Rosette, and passers-by and holidaymakers who consented to appear on camera.
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.
Incidentally, the green ray itself is an atypical example of a Rohmer special visual effect, created in the laboratory after several unsuccessful attempts to film it for real. Nature, which had cooperated with Rohmer by snowing on the exact day needed for My Night at Maud’s didn't play along this time.
The Green Ray is released on Blu-ray as part of Arrow Academy's Eric Rohmer Collection. This film is in the odd situation of having different BBFC certificates for cinema and at home. It was a PG on its original cinema and retained that certificate for home viewing, including for Arrow's previous DVD release in 2004, and as it hasn't been resubmitted, that certificate stands for this new release. However, a cinema reissue in 2015 carried a 12A, for the use of a discriminatory term (“retard”). I very much doubt this film will appeal much to anyone younger than that, so this is academic but noted for the record. The natural nudity (some topless holidaymakers on the beach) has never much worried the BBFC and nor should it anyone else.
This Blu-ray is in the aspect ratio of 1.66:1. Once again, there is some debate as to the correct aspect ratio of a Rohmer film, and in fact Arrow's previous DVD was in 1.33:1. I first saw The Green Ray on its British cinema release in March 1987, shown in 1.66:1. As with Rohmer's other films, you could show the film at 1.66:1 (no wider) without it looking unduly cropped, as he rarely puts his characters' heads at the top of the frame and facial closeups are even rarer. With its 16mm origins, The Green Ray has always looked very grainy and certainly soft, especially in a 35mm blow-up, and that's the way it looks now in 1080p. The 16mm filming gives the images an unadorned quality and a lack of slickness, and the transfer makes it look the way it always has looked.
The soundtrack is mono, as it always has been. The film was made with direct sound, as per Rohmer's usual practice, but the dialogue is clear. Unusually, there's non-diegetic music, including a main theme which Rohmer composed himself (more of that in a moment), English subtitles are optional.
The extras begin with another “Eric Rohmer parle ses films” (8:52), brought forward from Arrow's earlier DVD. This is based on a radio interview Rohmer did with the critic Serge Daney in 1986. The audio is overlaid with extracts from the film and others where relevant. Rohmer begins by talking about that music score, the first one composed for one of his films. He composed the main theme (for the musicians out there, C-B-B flat) using as a starting point the letters of Bach’s name as notes, with H meaning B in European musical notation. 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. There's a lot packed into a short length, and this featurette is well worth watching.
An interview with Marie Rivière follows, from French television (3:25). Given that short length – which includes a clip from the film – this doesn't dig very deep. Also on the disc is the film's trailer (2:25).
However, the remaining extra on this disc is a substantial one: a newly-filmed appreciation of Rohmer by Richard Ayoade (42:52). Ayoade begins by talking about The Green Ray, but expands to talk about Rohmer's other work, his style, techniques and his use of series, informed by Ayoade's own experience as a filmmaker. He rambles a little in places, and occasionally film titles and dates slip his mind, but it's a warm appreciation of a director whose work he clearly values highly.
Geoff Andrew's essay in the box set begins with by comparing Rohmer with Yasujiro Ozu, as the two film directors with the most consistent body of work in terms of style, technique and standard of work. However, he says, in Rohmer's consistency lies a greater diversity than at first appears, including two works which are as far apart as two films from the same director could be, the present one and Perceval. But the two have more in common than you might think. Andrew rightly praises Rohmer's naturalism but also points out that the film moves away from this as well, such as in the use of the film's music theme every time Delphine finds a Tarot card. He considers the film a masterpiece, and I wouldn't disagree.
Also in the book from Geoff Andrew is “Rohmer's Return”, an interview he conducted with Rohmer, reprinted from Time Out in 1987. It was conducted at a time when both The Green Ray and Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle were playing in Parisian cinemas and earlier works were frequently shown at repertory houses. Rohmer's well-known shyness comes across, but he says a lot about The Green Ray, which at the time was just about to be released in British cinemas, in particular about the use of improvisation and chance in the filmmaking process.