I’m an Éric Rohmer fan, and so I was especially disappointed by The Green Ray, which is hailed, by some, as his finest movie. I just can’t see how that can possibly be so.
The failure of The Green Ray to me is all the more mysterious because only a year later, in 1987, Rohmer concluded his series of Comedies and Proverbs with a true masterpiece, Boyfriends and Girlfriends (L’Ami de mon amie).
Rohmer is proud to be an off-beat film-maker, which is partly why I so appreciate him.
He is controversial: some viewers claim that in real life, people just don’t talk the way (and about the things) that people talk in Rohmer’s movies. Other viewers claim the exact opposite: that Rohmer is among the very few film-makers who got it right – that this is exactly how people talk and behave in real life. Decide for yourself.
Now, in The Green Ray, Rohmer took his radicalism in this regard even further: he refused to create a proper screenplay for this movie. Instead, he announced to his cast of characters (many of them ordinary folks, no actors) just the broad outlines of what they should be doing and talking about, and he let them do the work – work out the dialogs by themselves. Rohmer was impressed by TV documentaries (featuring TV interviews with “real people”) and their sense of “realism”, and was trying to recreate it in The Green Ray.
That’s admirable courage by the director: both refusing to hire professional actors for the movie (apart from a couple of leads), and refusing to create a proper screenplay for them. Courage is one thing, but the result of such endeavor is another thing. And I’m afraid that in this bold experiment, Rohmer failed.
I believe this is precisely where the main difference between The Green Ray and Boyfriends and Girlfriends lies: the latter movie features a proper screenplay written by Rohmer, whereas The Green Ray was only given a rough outline by Rohmer and the lead actress Marie Rivière, letting the actors improvise for most of the time.
Sorry, but I’m just not impressed by the final result. The Green Ray was, to me, for most of its runtime, simply too boring and annoying to watch.
It’s a delightful paradox: in Boyfriends and Girlfriends, you can see actors behave and talk in an unaffected manner, which is fantastically refreshing to any viewer expecting to see the artificiality of Hollywood in every movie. Yet in Boyfriends and Girlfriends, Rohmer manages to pull this off: the characters there, in being so unaffected, are believable. You forget that these are actors you’re watching on the screen.
That is not so for me in The Green Ray. The entire time I was watching this movie, I felt that something was wrong – something was fishy. And then, after I finished watching the movie and read more about its background, discovering that it lacked a proper screenplay, I thought: “Yep! That’s exactly it! These characters (they aren’t even proper actors, after all) are simply lost in this movie.”
Sorry, but contrary to Rohmer’s original intentions, I did not, for a second, buy that these were real people I was observing in The Green Ray. They took great pains to appear to be behaving and talking in unaffected ways, but that’s perhaps what was so wrong with them. They struggled so hard to appear unaffected, that affectation was the result.
(As an aside, I might mention I hate dubbed movies, especially movies dubbed in my native language, Slovak, because such dubbed movies are often sloppily and hastily done, but I happened to watch the Slovak-dubbed version of Boyfriends and Girlfriends many years ago, and was mesmerized. It was the perfect exception from the rule. Whoever was responsible for the Slovak-dubbed version of Boyfriends and Girlfriends, did a great job in recreating dialogs that flowed easily rather than artificially – which is typically the case especially in dubbed versions of movies. The Slovak dialogs seemed as unaffected and natural as in the French version. Hats off!)
There are other annoying aspects of The Green Ray, too. The characters are just not likable at all. Who wants to watch a bunch of ladies in their 20s or perhaps even 30s, but behaving as if they were still in their early teenage years? Sorry, but given all the real issues faced by humans all around the world at all times (I’m typing this as the coronavirus is raging across the globe), I just can’t sympathize with the main heroine of The Green Ray whose main concern in life appears to be how to escape boredom in Paris during her summer vacation from her boring secretary’s job. Can you say “spoiled middle-class brat”? And all of her numerous friends seemed to be of the same sort.
Oh yeah, someone like Leo Tolstoy would praise the topic of vegetarianism briefly featured in The Green Ray, but overall, I’m sure Tolstoy would passionately hate a movie like this. It showcases exactly the type of characters who Tolstoy believed were leading artificial lives and then complained about how unhappy this made them. Well, it was of their own making and preference, right?
On the other hand, what I didn’t mind about The Green Ray at all is the alleged lack of film-making finesse on the part of Rohmer. There are supposedly too many long shots here, the movie’s low budget and minimalist, skeleton crew is self-evident, etc. So what? I’m sure Andy Warhol’s movies were created with even lower budgets, yet they managed to be impressive. I say, kudos to Rohmer for going about it differently.
Finally, The Green Ray would just be an outright bad movie, if it weren’t for its ending. Now, the ending of The Green Ray truly is masterful and moving – and I claim that this is precisely because it was not improvised, but predetermined by Rohmer from the very start. Can there be a better way to end a movie than to offer its brightest, finest moment at the very end, just before the closing credits start rolling? No, there cannot. Given the great ending, I’m willing to call The Green Ray an “OK movie” overall (although very uneven), but definitely not the masterpiece that it is in many places purported to be.