The Green Ray: loneliness distilled into film

Summertime, summertime sadness

August arrives, Paris empties. The city deserts for the beach, for the lake, the mountains, abroad. Everyone has somewhere to go and someone to go with—except Delphine, the restless subject of Eric Rohmer’s 1986 The Green Ray. The film resonates as a portrait of solitary sadness because of its selective realism: by juxtaposing Delphine against her plain, happy acquaintances on holiday, Rohmer illuminates the contradictions of loneliness without isolation and depression without apparent cause.

At the holiday’s outset, Delphine’s friend cancels on her to instead trip to Greece with a boyfriend. Recently single after a long engagement, Delphine has an array of replacement vacations offered to her by friends and family, but cannot shake the sense that on them she would be intruding or miserable. While sulking at a friend’s house, she is pressed about her sadness. One girl is frustrated because nothing specific, not even her ex-fiancée, seems to be the source of her angst. The girl provides Delphine with solutions: vacation solo, be more open, initiate new relationships. It takes work to make friends or find a relationship, she says; a lack of effort is no excuse for lacking results. But to Delphine this is all wrong. She feels open to the world—it is the world that does not open itself to her.

Another friend, Françoise, convinces Delphine to accompany her on a family beach trip. Françoise’s family is amicable, and the destination is relaxing; yet instead of enjoying their company, Delphine takes walks alone. Rohmer captures her reluctance to connect in a telling shot on the beach: Françoise’s family plays catch and frolics in the water; then, the camera pans right and finds Delphine shin-deep in the sea, stumbling in the waves. Françoise’s family is out of frame.

Delphine’s listlessness persists and, after a few days, she retreats to Paris. Once there, she decides to try a solo trip and again departs, this time for the Alps. She arrives in the morning; by the afternoon, frustrated with either the tourists or herself, she decides to return to the city. Next, a friend lends Delphine an apartment in the Riviera. On this trip she makes a friend at the beach—a charming Swedish girl who is also traveling alone. The girl picks up two men at a café and plans a night out for the four of them. Finally, it seems, the winds of serendipity favor Delphine.

But while the Swedish girl flirts with the men, Delphine squirms in her seat. She is silent and wears a grim expression. When the girl pushes her to join the conversation and cheer up, Delphine begins to cry and literally flees the scene. Even after one of the men chases her down and professes there is a connection between them, Delphine orders him to buzz off. Alone again, she wanders the boardwalk and overhears an elderly group of beachgoers discuss the green ray, a rare phenomenon in which the last glimmer of the setting sun flashes green. The legend goes that if you see the green ray, you discover your true thoughts and feelings.

It sounds like Delphine’s panacea. Her depression is inexplicable, incurable. When alone, she wants company; when with others, she seeks solitude. Despite the series of excursions taken to remedy her sadness, it refuses to recede; and whenever a bit of happiness seems within reach, she feels the urge to cry. Delphine’s emotions are excruciatingly illogical, and she is desperate to understand them.

Rohmer’s accomplishment is capturing this irrational depression as it really feels. Throughout the film Delphine runs from place to place, person to person, hoping to find a situation that will resolve her feeling of disconnection; but because the problem is in her—is her—she cannot. The anger of her failures to enjoy new acquaintances repeatedly conjures a facial expression that says, simultaneously, “What is wrong with me?” and “What is wrong with everyone?” She is angry at the male expectation that for spending time with her she will sleep with them, angry at herself for denying the relationship advice given by her friends, and angry at fate for refusing her the ideal encounter with the ideal stranger. Delphine’s illogical emotions infuriate her and us: we want to shout, “Pick someone and have a nice time, already!”

Before Delphine boards the Riviera train to Paris, she does. A man sits across from Delphine in the station, their eyes meet, and, after a brief conversation, she asks to accompany him to nearby Saint-Jean-de-Luz. There, they chat amicably and walk to an ocean outlook to watch the setting sun. As it sinks, the man asks if she would like to stay with him for a few days. She begins to cry, he holds her, she hushes him. They gaze into the horizon, and at the final gleam the green ray flashes, Delphine gasps, and the film cuts.

Rohmer’s ending is hopeful but resists being a deus ex machina. Delphine finds company with a seemingly kind man and witnesses the green ray—the ingredients of a fateful intervention—but we are left to wonder: was it the universe that delivered her from loneliness, or was it her decision to seize a moment, however imperfect it might be?

Author: mjfleck7

Living and working in Heidelberg, Germany. Interests in shifting societal narratives, understanding, employing, and deploying art, reciprocity with the natural world, and Calvin and Hobbes. Running and folk music are good, too.

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