Le Rayon vert or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love emotionally insufferable Parisians

Paris, July, 1986, 30 year old secretary, Delphine (Marie Rivière) is thrown into sudden disarray when her friend suddenly cancels the summer vacation plans they had together. That’s a pretty crappy thing to do to your friend in general, but to do it to a French person? “That’s rough”, as Delphine would say.

On paper the synopsis here seems almost pitiful, are we really about to watch a feature length film about a woman trying to fix her botched vacation plans? Yes, we are, but it is a catalyst for an intensive psychological exploration that has as much depth as Juliette Binoche’s character does while trying to enforce loneliness on herself in Trois couleurs : Bleu, the difference here is that the roles are reversed, Delphine is frustrated and desperately seeking to unshackle herself from a strange kind of loneliness, an unfulfillment, that seems to be stalking her, whereas Julie (Juliette Binoche) yearns to demolish her former identity and all the auxiliary pillars that made up her former self.

Delphine begins her search for structure as soon as she is flung into this sense of overwhelming freedom now that work is out and her summer schedule is free: she meets with some acquaintances for lunch and we get the first real glimpse of her personality. Delphine is lonely, that’s clear cut. Her girlfriends chide her about this with good intentions, trying to get to the root of her issues and fix them, but this is where Delphine’s ethereal qualities come out. Delphine has an awareness of her own character — she isn’t afraid to latch onto that and explain herself (as she does repeatedly) — but it never quite comes out fluently. She grasps at words and strings sentences together, always with desperate hand mannerisms and aloof body language, but for the people in her presence listening, the reasons for her behaviour are never quite clear.

One of the girlfriends that Delphine has lunched with invites her to Cherbourg to spend summer with her family. She accepts and the real defect preventing her from happiness becomes clear: an overbearing cloud of anxiety consistently prevents Delphine from doing anything to fix this alienation from others. Social contentment is always slightly out of reach for her and though she scopes France frantically for it at three different holiday resorts during this one summer, her emotional baggage follows everywhere and stoops her in unyielding discontented isolation.

There are two striking scenes of physical repulsion in response to difficult social situations for Delphine during her summer ventures: Delphine makes her Cherbourgh friend pass on a message to her friends and family that she wishes to leave their temporary holiday home immediately; the rumination of how they might react to such innocuous news has her literally run away so that she doesn’t have to bear their reaction. Her peers have good intentions, but their character and interests conflict with Delphine’s own, and feeling like a contrarian amongst them, she ostracises herself in order to prevent awkward social dissonance. Later at a beach resort Delphine makes friends with an extroverted Swedish girl. At a café, the friend invites two men to sit with them and the swede’s ability to instantly make natural bonds through charming, trivial conversation is unbearable for Delphine. The absurdity of the shallow small-talk that adults are using to flirt with each other is too much for her. She sits in silence and contemplates the chinwagging that she’s unable to contribute towards, only to again sprint away from an uncomfortable encounter in maudlin despair.

Delphine’s inability to connect is constantly causing her emotional outbursts such as this, and though they are more reactionary than how your average kindred spirit of Delphine would act, they’re understandable responses that make sense to her sympathisers. Not many people in the real world would display such audacious behaviour, but Marie Rivière is an unabashed emotionally insufferable icon and couldn’t care less about containing her self and abiding by social niceties. The actress not the character is mentioned here because of the film’s improvised nature which Rivière significantly contributed towards. I once read on a message board that while she was introducing a screening of this film in Paris, Rivière came across, in real life, as very similar to Delphine.

Alienation is the film’s centrepiece but it never detracts or prevents the full vivacity of summer from having a prevalent presence adjunct to Delphine’s plight. Rohmer is the master of seasonal filmmaking and Le Rayon vert is his most immersive summer film. All the intrinsic sights and sounds of summer are carefully considered and presented, the birds, the insects and the sight of half-naked people treating city landmarks as sunbathing spots. Delphine’s physical environment doesn’t react to her mood but works as an objective neighbour; the full gaiety of summer taking place around Delphine only emphasises her condition.

Ceaseless travel across France for spiritual resolution shows Delphine is not a defeatist victim of her emotional plight, but a luminary of hope. The unmitigated freedom of summer has put her on a long and solitary journey which she is frantically trying to solve. Signs of green are littered throughout the film, in signs, posters and playing cards. When the signs show the film begins to play its only source of non-diegetic music, an eerie string piece that expands upon the strange sensation of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon (noticing repeatedly something recently discovered) in regards to Le Rayon vert, a term Delphine overhears a group of bibliophiles speaking of at the beach. Green signs are the most ambiguous aspect of the film and seem to work on either two levels: coincidences that Delphine is willing herself to see in order to make sense of the disarray and lack of purpose that sudden freedom has bestowed upon her or a liberating awareness of a fatalistic plan guiding her to a life of ostensible normality.

Ultimately these signs work as a path that lead to a transcendental moment for our absurd hero. Delphine takes control of her situation, initiates a date with a man and while sharing a tender moment together on a hill, the green ray its self beams and enshrouds Delphine with a brisk moment of clarity. She has willed herself to be where she is at that moment, ending the film on a frisson inducing sense of hope. Everything has fallen into place and the world is laid out before her as a crucible of opportunity.

 

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The nihilistic liberation of L’eclisse

Put me on the spot and force me to choose my favourite film ending ever and I’d get stuck between Antonionio’s L’eclisse or Tarkovsky’s Mirror depending on my mood. The ending of Mirror is phenomenal in its all encompassing connection to everything; in five minutes Tarkovsky manages to fine tune into the pathos and beauty of being alive. A family, symbolic gestures of love, nature and some objects of civilisation depict Earth’s glory, but the core of the scene’s profound insight comes from Tarkovsky’s cinematic usage of time. As an abstract concept time is impossible to recreate in cinematic language, but Mirror‘s approximation of the subject, which is achieved through its narrative flow trickling by in a constant state of flux, connects the audience entirely to the subject and enforces how unfathomable and fantastical time actually is (or feels).

As she lies down down in the field during Mirror‘s ending, Maria (Margarita Terekhova) riffs off of the film’s treatment of time and perceptually pierces through to a metaspace where time is comprehended outside of linear human means. The viewer remains anchored to the physical space Maria exists in through the recognisable signs of civilisation and nature surrounding her but it remains in a state of temporal flux as we watch her ostensibly slip through multiple timelines and see her life, full of love, play out before her. It is as humbling and melancholic as it is evocative of wonder; life is short but awe-inspiring. Tarkovsky’s great appreciation for existence is conveyed through the nuanced understanding of the space Maria cohabits and it’s not possible for me to see the scene as anything but complete antithesis of nihilist cinema. It is the scope of this five minutes’ segregation of metaspace and its abundance of earthly, corporeal and abstract charm that makes it so overwhelming in its life-affirming beauty.

Then there’s L’eclisse, which has an ending that seems to exist on a tonally opposite playing field of Mirror. It’s cold and it’s bleak. It’s the coda of a film I’ve seen described as being about “the end of all meaning”, yet while it doesn’t embrace life in the same way Tarkovsky does, by y’know, having the narrative that contains the main body of the film annihilated in the finale’s existentialist mocking of attributing meaning to places, people and objects, ostensibly deeming anything and everything, even the development of relationships, futile, the film does end on plane where all human baggage is lifted off the backs of its characters and by transference from the viewer too.

The charm and beauty of L’eclisse‘s protagonists, Monica Vitti (Vittoria) and Alain Delon (Piero) are partly why the ending has so much impact; we watch the nascent relationship developing between the two but have a sense that something isn’t right in their trappings: pillars emphatically separate bodies, kisses are made through glass screens, politics and money divide the surrounding characters and nature is at constant battle with the growing artificial landscape devouring it. Our couple push through the oppressive modernist environment and an attempt at a real relationship is made. They meet and achieve brisk moments of intimacy, but eventually as the couple attempt to caress one another, Vittoria finds that even the human body has a hard time complying with another and shatters the illusion by remarking, “‘There’s always too many body parts”. If even something as primal as the body cannot adapt to a comfortable existence, then what hope does anything else have?

Later the couple part after agreeing to meet at their usual locale — the promised date never happens. Then comes the nebulous ending, its liberating qualities at war with the almost contemptuous mocking of the fruitlessness of the relationship we thought might blossom. There’s a key quote to surviving this nihilist onslaught during an earlier scene in the film where Vittoria relaxes at an airfield café. The camera pans to two soldiers and one of them remarks, “We’re the centre of attraction right now”. How harrowing for him would it be to come to the realisation that he’s irrelevant in the scheme of the story we’re participating in. Unfortunately, Vittoria and Piero too bear the same burden of irrelevance. The camera reaches the couple’s designated meeting spot and we find nothing except the passing of time. From behind, both an Alain Delon and Monica Vitti lookalike briefly walk by and we latch onto their presence. Due to prior narrative convention developing a connection between the viewer and the couple it’s easy to fall victim to believing that they’re more meaningful than anything else in the frame. Quickly we realise these aren’t the leading stars, but two other individual people leading out their own stories, their own narratives, following in the footsteps of the soldier, they’re their own centres of an individual narrative universe. Again, Antonioni laughs in the distance for having watched us attribute meaning to anything, even his own characters.

Rome’s streets become increasingly enveloped in a bleak oppression during these final frames as it becomes evident our couple are out of the picture for good, their narrative now part of the void as the viewer becomes aware of the transience of people, life, the significance of objects — all things that Antonioni obliterates with his cold gaze. The film at this point has essentially swallowed all meaning, it all ends in a bright white light, inside a streetlight, nothingness. How can it possibly be conceived that something which externally appears to be of such despair, the opposite of Tarkovsky’s approach to life, can be liberating, if not life-affirming? While the screen may be working to annihilate its subjects, the viewer isn’t going anywhere, instead the film works as a vacuum, absorbing all ephemeral worries that seem petty in contrast to the overbearing inevitably of oblivion. If there’s any film to revitalise an audience, to instil a sense that making the most of the present is important, it’s L’eclisse and its condensed containment of the void  the world outside goes on.

Top 10 for 2016

1) Toni Erdmann (dir. Maren Ade)

Ines: Capitalism Eats the Soul, or just a really good comedy about family? Ade doesn’t shy away from showing the economical climate Ines’s line of work creates, but the humanity slowly bubbling up inside her as a result from her father’s unwelcome presence leads to what may easily end up being the most euphoric scene of the decade: a cordial hug that for a brief moment quells all the emotional and political baggage in the world.

2) Elle (dir. Paul Verhoeven)

This unflinching excavation of the psychological effects rape has on Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert at her formidable best) is a densely packed tome on gender, sex and deviant introspection. It’s also really funny.

3) Personal Shopper (dir. Oliver Assayas)

Finding refuge from grief meets millennial malaise, all from the abstracted outside of Kristen Stewart (Maureen) who exists only on the periphery of the affluent and glamorous milieu she inhabits as a personal shopper. Temporarily, Maureen can adorn the role of a glamorous young thing by wearing the garments she’s picking up for others, but this only serves as a temporary distraction from the grief of losing her twin brother. Maureen faces the void and goes on to play a ghostly game, but is it reality or more crafted distraction?

4) A Bridge for Rip Van Winkle (dir. Shunji Iwai)

Acquiescing to unfulfillment and loneliness in order to meet a societal role, Nanami endures an unbearably cruel life but before reaching a personal nadir. With a little help from some new friends(?) she unshackles the fickleness of identity and blooms into a woman who wears transcendent cinema on her shoulders with pride.

5) Nocturama (dir. Bertrand Bonello) 

6) Aquarius (dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho)

The titular apartment complex works as a bastion for Carla’s (Sônia Braga) tale of survival, her strength used also as a front for Filho’s caustic takedown of inequity, corruption and lies. Powerful and hypnotic like the nearby crashing waves, Aquarius is understated revenge at its most rewarding.

7) Fire at Sea (dir. Gianfranco Rosi)

8) Certain Women (dir. Kelly Reichardt)

9) Paterson (dir. Jim Jarmusch)

10) Things to Come (dir. Mia Hansen-Løve)