Directed by Éric Rohmer; Written by Marie Rivière and Éric Rohmer
I don’t know if the generations that came before mine felt paralyzed by the many options open to them and the pressure to get in a lane, but films like Éric Rohmer’s The Green Ray makes me think so, as the wide horizon of a summer holiday becomes an existential quagmire, as we follow in the steps of young woman Delphine as she journeys across the beaches, mountains and streets of France in a desperate attempt to unravel her feelings of ennui, depression and modern-age loneliness.
It starts off so well, too. Delphine’s on the cusp of her summer holiday, taking one last call in the office while sunlight pours in behind her. Bad news, though: her boyfriend dumps her (the gall) and what’s worse, there goes her summer vacation plans. Delphine’s at a loss, it quickly becomes clear. She doesn’t want to go alone, she’s not adventurous like that. She does the rounds, dejected, bemoaning her worries and rejecting all suggestions thrown her way. Paris doesn’t have a beach, Dublin is too cold – nothing can stir excitement in Delphine, and everything can induce fits of sadness. How to pick up the pieces?
On the tin, The Green Ray promises tears wetting beach towels, and it delivers, but it’s also as airy as the sun-kissed French coastline it traverses, replete with understated comedy as Delphine tries, and mostly fails, to get a grip on the emotional life that this vacation has become the stand-in for.
It’s a series of postcards from the most miserable time on earth as she finally does get on her way, looking deflated walking along the Seine, looking deflated on a mountain hike, looking deflated on Biarritz’s sandy beaches, looking deflated walking through Paris’ narrow streets, and beginning to cry mid-conversation more than once. What’s the saving grace of all this sadness, is that while Delphine will weep, we can chuckle, thankfully.
A lot of that is down to Marie Rivière, who is a treat as Delphine, her nervous energy curling her hair, and the completely ruined self-confidence providing only the rickitiest of chairs for her voice to project from, every sentence a plea for help, body language of a wilting flower.
For a more modern sibling, one can look to Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha for similar vibes, in particular Frances’ ill-advised weekend trip to Paris, done so while she was broke, had no plans, and simply felt the need to have something to tell other people about. Take that sequence and stretch it to a feature film length, and you have The Green Ray.
It means The Green Ray is a curious joy despite the tough-to-watch subject matter, because who hasn’t felt a sun without warmth, fail to see the beauty in nature’s splendour or go deaf to good advice from your friends, all because your headspace wouldn’t allow it? For the driven, no-nonsense people of little empathy, Delphine will be frustrating to no end, because why, as they often say, won’t she just snap out of it, and cheer up?
That probably because they’ve never been in emotional free fall like Delphine, desperate for someone to catch them, and with the fata morgana of meaning on the horizon, so enters the green ray of the title, a natural but rare phenomenon where the sun’s last rays turn green as the orb descends beyond the horizon, a sight so wondrous that emotional landscapes fall into place upon seeing it – who wouldn’t like that?
Whether it’s fool’s gold, a benign coping mechanism, or the real deal, only time can tell, but in The Green Ray, you can rest assured that there at least was someone who felt like you did, and reached out for order in a time of bewilderment.