Sippin’ a Rayon Vert while watching Le Rayon Vert.
For my second “Celluloid Flashback” post, I’ve chosen to revisit Eric Rohmer’s 1986 masterpiece The Green Ray, aka Le Rayon Vert, aka Summer. (While the movie is known in the U.K. by its literally translated title, it has regrettably only ever been releaed in the U.S. by the English-language title Summer, perhaps because distributors feared “The Green Ray” would make what is essentially an intimate romantic comedy sound too much like science-fiction. Matters were infinitely complicated with the 1996 release of Rohmer’s Conte d’été, which was distributed in the U.S. as A Summer’s Tale. It’s enough to make you pull your hair out.) I had only seen The Green Ray once previously, on VHS in the 1990s, but a couple of neat coincidences caused me to track it down again recently in order to give it a fresh look. First, I noticed a relatively new craft beer on the market, a Belgian-style pale ale named “Rayon Vert,” which obviously took its name from the same Jules Verne novel that Rohmer’s film did. Because it amuses me to no end to take photographs of myself drinking a movie-related beer while watching the film in question, the idea of renting The Green Ray on DVD was thus planted. Then, I read Gilbert Adair’s delightful 1995 book Flickers in which the late critic celebrated the cinema’s centennial by analyzing one still image from one movie made each year between 1895 and 1994. His entry for the year 1986 was an examination of The Green Ray, and what he had to say about it was so damned intriguing that it sent me fairly racing to my local video store to check it out again.
The Green Ray is the fifth entry in Rohmer’s six-film cycle known as “Comedies and Proverbs” and many critics regard it as the best although, like all Rohmer’s movies, it’s not without its detractors. It tells the story of a young woman named Delphine (Marie Riviere), a Parisian secretary who decides to go on holiday alone three times over the course of one summer. The film’s true subject is loneliness and Delphine’s journeys are more psychological than physical as she learns, through her encounters with other people, a series of tough lessons that allow her to become less asocial and more engaged with life. Only when she learns to be content with herself is she truly ready to be transformed by the kind of love that has eluded her since the film’s beginning, represented by a climactic “double miracle” that recalls the cathartic ending of Roberto Rossellini’s masterpiece Journey to Italy. I believe Rohmer’s special genius as a writer/director was his uncanny ability to show, accurately and without condescension, the elaborate lengths to which human beings will go in order to deceive themselves. Marie Riviere is one of the best actresses Rohmer ever worked with (by my count he directed her a whopping 10 times, which is remarkable given how infrequently he tended to recast actors), and she arguably nails this quality of self-deception better than anyone, including the brilliant Jean-Louis Trintignant in My Night at Maud’s. The effortlessness of her semi-improvised performance was greatly abetted by Rohmer’s decision to shoot the movie with a lightweight 16mm camera, which clearly proved less intrusive than the larger and bulkier 35mm cameras to which the director was accustomed.
A real green ray photographed in Santa Cruz, California.
The film’s unusual title is a reference to a real optical phenomenon in which a setting or rising sun seems to emit a flash of green light. The observance of this phenomenon provides The Green Ray with its climactic moment (half of the “double miracle” referenced earlier), which, incidentally, is also a sublime reference point in Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight. According to Gilbert Adair, Rohmer spent a year attempting to film a real green ray and, only after deciding he was incapable of capturing one, resorted to creating the illusion in a lab with the aid of special effects. Adair calls Rohmer’s green ray “the tiniest and most moving special effect in the history of cinema” and notes that it is impossible to notice on a television screen. I practically smacked my forehead upon reading this, knowing that when I first saw the movie on VHS I literally did not see the green ray and thus did not fully comprehend the meaning of the ending. (Admittedly, I wasn’t quite as unfortunate as the student who told me she had never understood the ending of Citizen Kane until she saw it in my class because the word “Rosebud” hadn’t been legible on her tiny T.V. screen at home.) Because Adair wrote his book during the VHS era (when image resolution was considerably lower than what can be seen today on DVD or Blu-ray), I was eager to see The Green Ray again mainly to find out whether or not Rohmer’s tiny special effect would be visible on DVD. Is it? The following screen capture I created provides the answer:
The cinema’s “tiniest and most moving special effect.”
The Green Ray won the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival in 1986 (27 years ago next week). Rayon Vert Ale won Bronze at the San Diego County Fair in 2012. I endorse both.