Always the cine-moralist, Eric Rohmer began his career in an optimistic Christian crusade against a 1940s French cinema that was as knee-jerk Left Bank existentialist as most contemporary art-house fare is lazily Godless. A profoundly religious artist and self-described “classicist,” he was probably the most fogeyish member of a Nouvelle Vague with an oft-ignored conservative strain. He expressed an affinity for the tenets of austere Jansenist Catholicism, heavy on personal grace and predestination, shared by his Cahiers contemporary André Bazin and the journal’s much-favored Bresson. Rohmer’s spiritual polemics, elucidated in his early writings, were often much in accordance with Bazin’s faith-based musings on mise-en-scéne, neorealism, and “total cinema,” making up the theoretical groundwork for a style which the director has practiced with remarkable consistently throughout his devout oeuvre. His stock-in-trade is a relaxed realism whose straightforward visuals face the recognizably secular world head-on. Implicit in this respect for simple, undecorated imagery is his idea that film’s greatest virtue lies in its ability to faithfully isolate, reproduce, and thus exalt the plain wonder of God’s conception. This shows in the director’s relish for the circumlocution of casual conversation as much as in his quiet reverence for the fall of natural light. His focus and faith on the undressed essence of the world, as in the films of Renoir and Bresson, can bring us “back to things themselves,” as Rohmer once wrote, to find God in the face of His creation. It’s in doing this that these works can help even nonbelievers to rediscover the beauty of searching inarticulation, wet paving stones, and strange, skinny bachelorettes.
Marie Rivière’s Delphine, the subject of Le Rayon vert (The Green Ray), corresponds to the latter category nicely: she has a slim ermine face glowing in relief against her inky mass of hair, and unexpected expressions break across her features with the elemental suddenness of flash weather shifts. In keeping with the protagonists of Rohmer’s Comedies and Proverbs cycle, to which Le Rayon vert belongs, Rivière’s Parisian secretary is a confused twentysomething struggling at self-expression and possessed of a modestly scaled personal melodrama. Her vacation time is fast approaching, her friends have all made their own, exclusive plans, and she, still half-clinging in denial to a dissipated romance, has no real lover with whom to escape the fast-emptying capital. Starting her holiday, she drifts from retreat to retreat, with Parisian relapses in between; describing herself as “Sort of in transit… Looking for a better place,” her travels have the aspect of a pilgrimage with no fixed destination, each change of scenery finding her desire to achieve a half-understood idea of “real vacation” equally obscure and unfulfilled. Read all of Nick Pinkerton’s article “Where There Is Sorrow, There Is Holy Ground”.
A new print of Le Rayon vert from The Film Desk opens in New York June 9. Click here for upcoming screenings in other cities.