Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With the fall movie season upon us, we wave goodbye to the warmer months with some of our favorite films about the end of summer.
The Green Ray (1986)
Éric Rohmer, the oldest of the critics-turned-directors of the French New Wave and one of the first to start making movies, was also one of the last to achieve wider recognition, which came with My Night At Maud’s, a talky black-and-white drama that became an unlikely international success. Like most of Rohmer’s best-known films, My Night At Maud’s was part of a themed series, the Six Moral Tales. Though it was written and numbered as the third entry, it was actually the fourth to be produced, because Rohmer refused to shoot it at any time except around Christmas Eve—an insistence that seems all the more personal given that the movie takes place almost entirely indoors.
Rohmer, you see, was a stickler for realism when it came to nature, geography, and weather; there are the famous stories of the writer-director traipsing around forests with a microphone in order to record accurate birdsongs for a sound mix, or about how he would plant flowers on location a year in advance of filming so that they would bloom right. Rohmer’s characters are typically urbanites, but they are often experiencing or being affected by nature, and his body of work includes many of the all-time-great entries in the unique sub-genre of the French summer movie.
American movies about summer are almost exclusively coming-of-age stories, because the U.S is a country where the notion of summer as an off season generally disappears around the time people finish school, but in France—where full-time employees are legally entitled to five weeks vacation a year—it’s an institutionalized part of adulthood. That, in certain ways, is the subject of The Green Ray, an episodic and low-budget portrait of a Parisian secretary who finds herself alone in a culture of vacations and flings. Appropriately, the film’s original American release title was simply Summer.
The title refers to one of those obscure natural phenomena that seemed to get Rohmer’s imagination going: a split-second flash of emerald green that can sometimes be observed in a sunset over water. Here, Delphine (Rohmer regular Marie Rivière, who co-wrote the story) finds herself at the start of her summer break newly single and without any plans on how to spend her time off. With most of her friends gone from Paris and her family traveling abroad, she ends up traveling alone to the Alps and later to the resort town of Biarritz, drawn—as though mystically—in the direction of the green ray, which both the unattainable and the miraculous. All the while, hand-written title cards tick down the days.
As strict as the structure may sound, what distinguishes The Green Ray is its seasonally appropriate looseness. Shot by a crew of just four on grainy 16mm, it’s a movie where characters and places are always coming and going, and scenes move in organic twirls of improvised dialogue. It feels like summer.
Availability: The Green Ray is available on an out-of-print DVD from Amazon or possibly your local video store / library under the title Summer.