Though Eric Rohmer’s breakthrough film stateside was the lustrous black-and-white, winter-set My Night at Maud’s (1969), the New Wave architect may be cinema’s greatest chronicler of the summer vacation. Among the director’s many holiday-set movies, Pauline at the Beach (1983) and A Summer’s Tale (1996) explore both the languid pleasures and the romantic anguish of time off during the hottest season. Rohmer’s 1986 masterpiece (being re-released with its original French title, which translates as “The Green Ray”), Le Rayon Vert centers on those themes, too, but delivers something much richer: an absorbing, empathic portrait of a complex woman caught between her own obstinacy and melancholy.
That woman is Delphine, a Paris secretary played by Rohmer veteran Marie Rivière, who collaborated with the director in creating her character. (Rivière also stars in Rohmer’s 1987 film Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle, which screens at BAM July 20 through 26.) The fifth title in the director’s “Comedies and Proverbs” sextet, Le Rayon Vert begins on July 2, with two of Delphine’s office mates chit-chatting about their upcoming summer-travel plans; Delphine is summoned to the phone only to be told by her friend Caroline that she’s dumping her from their planned vacation to go to Greece alone with her boyfriend.
For the next four weeks, this single woman—she and her fiancé broke up two years ago, though she insists, “There’s someone in my life even if I’m not seeing him”—will endure both the hectoring of friends, who tell her she must “escape her loneliness,” and many thwarted attempts at having a good time away. She turns down an invitation to join her sister and her clan on a camping trip to Ireland, eventually accompanying a friend, Françoise, to her family’s vacation home in Cherbourg. Uneasy and, at times, less than gracious (she lectures her hosts on her moral superiority as a vegetarian), Delphine soon returns to Paris; a few days later, she departs for the Alps, but decides she hates it there after a few hours. She comes back home again, and finally ends up in Biarritz.
“I’m not stubborn. Life is stubborn toward me,” the headstrong protagonist declares. But Delphine, certainly maddening at times, is much more self-aware and vulnerable than she lets on. She isn’t one of the inscrutable women—the Chloés, Claires, Collectionneuses—often found in Rohmer’s films. She is lonely and sad, but not self-pitying. Though her defenses are up, she isn’t immune to the power of magic. Objects or events with talismanic significance occur throughout the film, most importantly, overheard conversations. On her second day in Biarritz, she eavesdrops on a group of gray hairs discussing the 1882 Jules Verne novel that gives the film its name, itself a reference to the optical phenomenon that occurs right after sunset. “When you see the green ray, you can read your own feelings and those of the people you’re with,” one elder says. Something seems to shift or loosen in Delphine after she hears this. She begins to open up to the possibility of getting lost in adventure—of taking, perhaps, a vacation from herself.