Jul 4, 2011

Eric Rohmer's Le Rayon Vert

The unlikely heroine of this lovely, wise, delicate romantic comedy by Eric Rohmer is Delphine, a young single Parisian woman whose vacation plans are suddenly cancelled and now she is alone and with no Summer plans, which in Paris amounts to a slow and painful death. Parisians would rather be guillotined at the Bastille than remain in the city with the hordes of tourists and tout le monde away on vacances.
Delphine is nursing a broken heart (a certain Jean-Pierre, who haunts the movie like a ghost) and she is terrified of spending the Summer alone. Soon we learn that despite her understandable panic, she doggedly insists on being lonely. Delphine is a bit difficult, ornery, a bit passive aggressive. She thinks she is open minded and easy going, but she is a bit of a pill. Anywhere she goes, whether alone or with friends who try to cheer her up, whether the countryside, the beach or the mountains, she's shrouded by a fine mist of misery. There are many wonderful scenes of Delphine in her cloudy bubble, surrounded by people. She cries frequently and prefers to take lonely walks. She doesn't go sailing because it makes her seasick, she doesn't eat meat, she doesn't pluck wildflowers; she tries very hard to enjoy herself but is so uncomfortable in her own skin that every time she goes somewhere she tends to cut the time short and is back in Paris long before the holiday is over.
Rohmer trains his camera on the leisurely conversations that reveal her to her friends and to us, and little by little perhaps to herself as well. His movies are famous for their garrulity, but the conversations are natural and unrehearsed, they have the rhythms and the texture they have in life. She comes in contact with different people who shed light on her painful status and sometimes make it even sadder, as it is usually when one has the blues. One roots for her, almost goading her to go to the Alps, join her friends at the beach, go out at night, have some fun. We feel as desperate as a concerned mother or a good friend as we watch her retreat farther into her stubborn ways under Rohmer's wise and gentle hand. This is about profound sadness, yet Rohmer finds a lot of sweet and knowing comedy in Delphine's testiness.
When she finally changes, when our patience and sympathy are almost at a breaking point (out of true concern, not out of contempt), it is a complete and dramatic turnaround, yet it takes place as she sits quietly in a train station. This is equivalent to someone in another movie climbing Everest or discovering a new planet. That despite her nature she is willing to give it a go is hugely touching and feels like an enormous victory.
Enjoying the pleasures of an Eric Rohmer film feels like spending a lazy Summer afternoon shooting the breeze, chattering with friends about someone. But it also feels deeply true. Rohmer creates characters so real that you feel their pain in your own skin. You know people like Delphine. People who in their unassuming way bring their own dark, neurotic cloud to a sunny day. You've been there too, not only nursing a breakup, pretending there is still hope, but feeling horribly uncomfortable around people who seem to be having the most relaxed and happy time. Miserable in company and miserable alone. Who hasn't been there?
The humor is biting but very delicate, and very sympathetic. There is no cruelty in this movie except Delphine's own harshness to herself. The tone of the movie reminds me a bit of Chekhov's cranky, miserable characters whose hearts ache with unrequited love and self-loathing. Rohmer leads Delphine through a quiet, sweetly funny and profound epiphany and as difficult as she is, she is a huge heroine for having the guts to confront herself.

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