Metro Retro Movie Love In Conversation

Roundtable: Eric Rohmer’s "Le Rayon Vert"

August 28 2019

Here at Metrograph, it’s something of a summer tradition for us to bring out our gorgeous 35mm print of Eric Rohmer’s melancholic masterpiece Le Rayon Vert (The Green Ray). We know the city can be lonely in the waning days of August, when it seems like everyone you know is out on a beach somewhere. For those who love the film – and for those who haven’t seen it yet – The Green Ray is the perfect tonic for the summer blues: In the movie, a city girl named Delphine wanders heartbroken around the French coast for a few summer weeks, in and out of more easy-going cliques of acquaintances, searching for… something.

We thought it would be wonderful to invite some of our favorite critics to Table Seven at the Metrograph Commissary to chew the fat about their favorite summer movie, which they all coincidentally saw for the first time at Metrograph. Kristen Yoonsoo Kim moderates the conversation and is joined by Teo Bugbee and Haley Mlotek.

Kristen Yoonsoo Kim: I'd love to hear how you came to love The Green Ray.

Teo Bugbee: I actually think that it was around the time Before Midnight came out, because I don't particularly like Richard Linklater as a filmmaker, and I remember the movie getting reviews that mentioned this other movie, The Green Ray, that the movie is referencing. And so I wanted to see it, partly because of that, and then partly just out of my own love for French people. And so I came to a screening here at Metrograph by myself. I guess even if you watch it with other people, it feels like you're watching it by yourself. It was in the middle of summer. There's something so beautifully... not just lonely, but solitary about that movie in a way that I just really, really adore, and it kind of hit me at exactly the right time in life, when I was trying to figure out what I wanted and what I was doing next, and all of those questions that come of being a young person in the midst of summer. And yeah, I just have loved it ever since.

KYK: Haley, is it true that Teo introduced you to the movie?

Haley Mlotek: Yes, just over two years ago. Teo and I were working at MTV News together, and we knew that we were coming to an end of our time working in the same office. We would just... I guess I'm allowed to say this, because we don’t work there anymore, but we would just sit and talk about movies at our cubicles for a really long time in the afternoons. I made a list on my phone of all the movies that Teo would recommend. And then when we were laid off, I thought: Now I can start checking off that list.

I remember coming to see it at Metrograph two summers ago when it was playing, but by myself. And I was like, why would I have done that? Why wouldn't I have just come with Teo? I can’t remember.

Teo had described it to me as a movie about a girl who's so cute and so annoying. If you were a less generous person, maybe you'd consider the way she talks to be whining. But it's not whining. All she wants is a vacation. There are attempts to maybe get to a deeper level of what she wants—is she sad over a break up, or is she lonely? She's so committed to being like: No, I just want a vacation!

I am someone who, especially in the summertime, feels bullied by everybody insisting that things are fun when I don't think they are fun. I deeply related to Delphine. Maybe the ending is not really so clear, necessarily, but I felt like she got what she wanted. I think it has the perfect feeling for a summertime seasonal depression film.

TB: I actually recently described it to a friend as the movie version of “Summertime Sadness,” and I was listening to that song on my way here.

KYK: Teo, you said it's a very good young person movie and speaking in young person terms, it's a movie where you feel very seen. In that way it feels like a very millennial movie. For this roundtable we wanted to gather younger critics, and not necessarily people who saw it when it came out. And I think it's a movie that speaks to so many people of our generation. How do you feel seen by The Green Ray?

TB: She's seeking a sign of something in this universe that's going to be the thing out of a million choices, the thing that will concretely point to her the path. And she's constantly being offered all of these choices. That's part of why she's so annoying. Her friends are like: “Oh, come with us to the beach, come with us to our vacation home, go on this date, go hang out with this topless Swedish woman.” She's bombarded constantly with so many options of good things to do that she's paralyzed. There's a paralysis of too much choice, and a desire for the choice to be made for her by something that's more meaningful. That's classic depression speaking, but also that's what Delphine wants. And I think that there is something really modern about that in the sense that in the present, we are constantly bombarded by 10,000 things to do. And it's not a particularly religious era, either. Although I think Rohmer was Catholic?

KYK: Yes. He was.

TB: And the idea of a higher nature, a higher deity, a higher power, a green ray, whatever, being the thing that points you to the definitively correct path is extremely appealing.

HM: Right. I agree with the too-many-options thing, too. And the movie felt so relevant to me because I spent a significant portion of my early twenties having guys come up to me to say, "You look so bored," and I would be like, "No, no. I'm having a great time." And only later did I realize, “Yes. I'm so bored. You're right, and more perceptive than I thought.” Because those parties were boring. They weren't fun, but I felt embarrassed! That's what I mean about recognizing the impulse when everyone is like, "we're having fun right now," and I'm not having fun. Delphine can just say so. Oh, and also, the movie is the exact same age that I am. It's exactly millennial.

KYK: The movie is a millennial. I never thought about it that way.

HM: There is the astrological dynamic in the film, too. They're always talking about her being a Capricorn, which explains everything. I looked it up just to see the dates the movie spans: It's July 2nd to August 11th, I think. I wanted to see if Mercury was retrograde during that time, and it wasn't. It was direct both times. So everything that falls apart in her life is her own fault.

Delphine is the only character who seems to be saying, "I'm not sure and I'm still waiting to be sure. It's not going to be fun for me unless I'm certain thatI want it, not just because it's what everybody else wants." In that way, she actually seems very different from myself, and other millennials that I know; I'm very influenced by other people. But yes, the abundance of choice, the boredom in each different context, and then the astrology: These are all deeply millennial qualities.

KYK: I feel like you know more astrology than me. Does she seem like a Capricorn to you?

HM: She does, but she's not very organized.

TB: I think the Capricorniness that strikes me is that she's obstinate. The Capricorn is the goat and she's like the goat, getting dragged from beach to beach, who just wants to stand still.

KYK: Delphine is very stubborn!

TB: She is stubborn. She has a will to be herself regardless of what the reaction is going to be. I think one of the most amazing scenes in the movie for me is when she's talking about being a vegetarian.

KYK: Oh my God. I'm obsessed with that. It goes on for so long.

TB: So long. It goes on forever and they're so mean to her. The questions are just relentless, and she's obviously thought about her answers but has not had to articulate them in front of other people. And their questions are so hostile in a way that requires a real strength of character. She can't make a decision, except her decision to be herself regardless of what the social consequences are, which is also appealing.

KYK: Yeah, but what’s interesting is that she's not your typical strong willed character. Yes, she does what she wants, but she also will run off crying. She's that girl. She's not putting down her fist at the table. But I don't know, as a big crier, that really touches me in many ways.

But the girl who plays Delphine, Marie Rivière, she also co-wrote the movie and Rohmer has had a few movies that he's co-written with his actors, like La Collectionneuse. Do you think that colors the film's characterization of the female lead in a different way than his other movies?

TB: This is one of the movies of Rohmer's that's almost entirely improvised, and that creative process was very much a collaboration. And I think that... and when she's visiting her friends, they're her actual friends. When she's at a friend's place, that's actually her friend's place. She's obviously playing a character, but there is a profound presence in that performance of a person who's wholly realized. And I think that's a significant creative contribution that's unique among any movie.

HM: This is the only one of his movies that I've seen. I just watched it for the second time, to see if I could spot moments where people didn't know what was going to happen next, and it really didn't have that quality. Delphine has this personality trait of being so certain, and even if she doesn't know what she wants, she knows what she doesn't want. I feel like that comes across very much in those improvised scenes. The cliché about improv is that you're always supposed to say, “Yes, and…” It's such a funny experience to watch Delphine, because she's always going to say, “No, and…” The limited nature of what she will or won't accept leads the dynamics between the actors into some fascinating places, I think.

KYK: Right. And I love an aimless dialogue-driven movie. But I love that this is one has a place it's going, even though you don't know. I feel like I've heard some complaints about how the ending is like, of course she's happy because she finds a man. And I want to know if you guys have ever thought about it that way or if it was a flaw for you.

TB: No. She's so alone for most of the movie that the companionship that she finds... it's hard to even think of it as particularly gendered or romanced. It's the idea of somebody who wants to see things the way that you see them. She's surrounded in the movie by people who don't share her perspective and who are frustrated by her desire to maintain it.

Regardless of what the political history of women on screen has been, as a human being you would hope to not be isolated forever. And I think that the movie is about that desire to commune with another person and share something with another person, which to me is... I mean as somebody who's not particularly interested in being with a man, the movie could have played in many different ways. But that's a common ideal.

KYK: Yeah, I'm with you, and also she doesn't spend the whole movie looking for one. In fact she, I think deflects a lot of male advances.

HM: I hadn't thought about it that way, maybe because something that I liked is the childlike quality to the whole story. It has this feeling of an essay titled “My Summer Vacation.” I did sort of read that as how Delphine would tell this story of her summer. If nothing had happened, it wouldn't have been remarkable at all. It wouldn't have been worth the story. But it ends with something significant in its own way, even if we don't know what's going to happen with this man. It's not necessarily that she's found true love, or that she's found another shitty guy. It's just something in between: where, for a moment, she was going to follow something she found. I'm just going to see where this goes. And I like that, even if it's not explicitly romantic. But—also—I like romance. It's nice! He seemed like a nice man.

I really like the ending. I thought it was perfect because I just wanted Delphine to get what she wanted for one night. But there's a scene that stood out much more on my second viewing: when she's eavesdropping on a group of women, and one woman's husband, and they’re talking about what a green ray is. And it's just a beautiful conversation. If anything, that's the most romantic scene for me, between this group of women. They're quite a bit older than Delphine and her friends, and they're just talking to each other rather than at each other. They're actually asking each other, "What did you think about this?" When they disagree about something, they do so with such care.

KYK: This is interesting, because this conversation she’s not even a part of is the ideal conversation for her, compared to every other conversation we've seen her be in.

HM: Something else I was thinking of when I watched it this time: This is a movie about a woman who is deeply uncomfortable being the main character. She does not want to be the center of attention. You're not used to seeing from the star of a movie. That's not how she sees herself interacting with other people.

KYK: Yeah, I like movies where the protagonist feels like the best friend character rather than the lead character, and that's sort of how Claudia Weill described Girlfriends. She’s this awkward girl who doesn't know how to flirt. She's brunette instead of blonde, you know, and that's the stereotype.

TB: Besides the vegetarian scene, the other scene that really got to me was when she meets the Swedish lady and she speaks every European language and is so good at flirting, and of course she's blonde. And that's another part where she just runs off crying. Then I feel like I've always been in the passenger seat of that kind of courtship with strangers, and it is so painfully awkward. And even down the costuming! I think it's so genius that she wears that one-piece bathing suit, which I love, and her Swedish friend's like, "Why don't you take it off?" It's like don't force her to take it off if she doesn't want to. I love the details of the outfits in the film.

KYK: Do you have thoughts on the clothing or the look of the film, Teo?

TB: I think you had mentioned earlier that this is a very dialogue driven movie, which is true. But it's a very lush visual. This was shot on film, and it was shot very, very cheaply, so apparently Rohmer tried to do only one take of every scene. So there's not, in the same way that there would be today 17 versions of the same shot to go off of. And I just, I do really appreciate the craft of that, like the choice to have her in red so often so that she's offset so much against the green backgrounds or the sea. Yeah, there are just so many really lovely textures to appreciate within the movie.

KYK: I'm pissed that he made a perfect movie with first takes.

HM: I spend a lot of time watching her friends. Her friends all have such distinct looks, like her friend with the very curly hair and the necklace like Pebbles Flintstone. It suits her so completely. And the kerchief that wraps up her hair, and all the cute pattern skirts. And then she has that other friend that I'm obsessed with, with the short, dark hair, who wears a black corset and pets a black cat while Delphine's crying off camera, so sad that everyone's mean to her about being a Capricorn and being lonely. You saw one strap very casually falling off her friend’s shoulder, and it's just perfect.

The wardrobe all felt very ordinary. I wouldn't be surprised to hear if it was the actresses own clothes or those things that showed up in other movies, because they did seem in their own very non-distinct way of being in the world. Delphine does dress in a way that's quite ordinary and modest. Every so often she mentions that she's a secretary, and even her weekend clothes have that business casual feel: the short sleeve button downs, unbuttoned with a tank top underneath, and her skirts.

KYK: I just called it a perfect movie and I stand by it. But are there any flaws in the movie for you? There doesn't have to be one! I'm just asking.

HM: I mean, this is a bad thing to say as a film critic, because I do think it’s perfect, even though I feel like a smarter critic would be able to find the flaws. But that's not what criticism really is. I feel very sensitive to movies that are as close as possible to what the director wanted it to be, the movies that seem like they have the same feeling as the first thought or the first image that a director or a writer or an actress had when the idea first came to them. To me, it's not like The Green Ray is necessarily perfect, but it feels complete in that sense.

TB: I agree with Haley. We haven't really talked about the ending, but the ending of this movie is really miraculous. Just when it happens, the dread, the anticipation, the fear, the anxiety, the stress of that moment of watching to see if the green ray is going to appear and then the exhilaration when it does... that feels so good. And to speak to the question of compromise and non compromise, I've talked about this being a low-budget movie, but there were seven months when Rohmer just sent cameramen around the world trying to get a shot of the green ray. The financiers were putting pressure on him to create it in a lab and figure out how to make the effect happen to look like it's the sun with a flashlight behind a glass or whatever, and he just wouldn't do it. It's Rohmer’s understanding that that moment is a spiritual moment, something that speaks to a human need, and that the human need is going to come from this two seconds, maximum two seconds of this flash across the horizon. That's a beautiful idea. And everything that happens preceding that – this whole character, this whole story – it's spectacular. It feels spectacular to see something that's so totally realized.

KYK: That scene where it's just shot-reverse-shot of the sunset and her hand over her mouth, it's an edge-of-my-seat kind of scene, even though it's not in your traditional sort of way. That's amazing that he was really set on the real green ray. Maybe Rohmer is more Delphine-like than we know.

TB: Maybe he's a Virgo. I don't know, actually. We should look that up.

KYK: We need to know what Rohmer's sign is.

TB: He's a Pisces. Unexpected, but very mystical.

KYK: Wow. There is a line where someone's like, "Delphine, you can't be a Pisces." Maybe because she doesn't like the beach or something. But I have that same problem, by the way. I never go to the beach. I suffer in the sun.

HM: I have one more question. Do either of you think that Jean Pierre was hot? That's the boyfriend that never shows up. He’s always off screen.

TB: Great question. I love this question. I have an answer. So I think that Jean Pierre was almost certainly good looking, but I don't think that he was hot, and here's why: I think that Delphine is somebody who is too particular to date someone who was not good looking. She would be very aware of needing to have someone who reflected her idea of what the world should look like, and part of that would be taking care of yourself, being well groomed, wearing decent clothes, being put together. But at the same time, I don't think he was hot, because she enters that movie in such a place of unease that my vibe of the relationship was not that it had ever been that particularly passionate or exciting, which is what you would want from a hot person. And so my vote is for good looking, but not hot.

TB: You know who's really hot, is that one woman she talks to, the one with the blazer.

HM: Oh my God, that's my favorite character, with the blonde ponytail and the white t-shirt. Best outfit, best character.

TB: Agreed.

KYK: That's a really great answer, because I think in my head that he probably looked a lot like the guy she meets at the end, but this guy does not understand her at all, which renders him not hot, at least to her.

HM: No, you're both right. Good looking but not hot. I think that’s the correct answer for sure. There's no other way to be.

Kristen Yoonsoo Kim is a South Korea-born, New York-based film critic whose writing has appeared in The Village Voice, GQ, Pitchfork, and elsewhere.

Haley Mlotek is a writer and editor based in New York. She is currently working on a book about romance and divorce.

Teo Bugbee is a part-time film critic and full-time union organizer, whose writing has appeared in the New York Times, Film Comment, and more.