Every once in a while, when the atmosphere is very, very clear, it is possible to see the "green ray" at sunset. At this rare moment, one's perception of self and others is greatly heightened. At least that's what Jules Verne apparently believed, for this is what happens at the end of his romantic novel "The Green Ray."
A group of people are discussing Verne and this phenomenon in Eric Rohmer's exquisite new film "Summer" (opening Friday at Westside Pavilion) when the lovely but lonely Delphine (Marie Riviere) overhears them as she strolls aimlessly along the beach at Biarritz. If ever there was someone in need of a green ray, it's Delphine.
This latest installment in Rohmer's wise and delightful "Comedies and Proverbs" series pulls us immediately into that inviting world of contemporary French films in which there are sunny gatherings of family and friends. Everyone is tres, tres charmant , the children beautiful, the adults elegant in a relaxed, unstudied way. Nobody is old, nobody is so much as a pound overweight. Every detail of decor, every item of dress, every meal and drink is the epitome of simple, sophisticated good taste. It's all so wonderfully natural you could choke or suffocate.
Delphine doesn't do either but she does cry a lot. Shattered from the breakup of a romance, she is having a devil of a time figuring out what to do with her vacation, something lots of single people struggle with year in and year out. But how to make sense of her feelings and decide where to go and why? All these effortlessly pulled-together types offer sympathy, advice, sometimes even criticism, but they confront only superficially the pain their friend is experiencing.
Rohmer ticks off the days, calendar style, as Delphine thrashes about, using up her vacation in misery. She goes off to Cherbourg with her pretty friend Francoise (Rosette) and her family but can't get into their spirit of fun. A return to the mountains where she spent so much time with her former lover turns into a far worse experience. As a last resort she accepts a friend's offer of a Biarritz apartment.
Gradually we come to realize that Delphine isn't spoiled or merely being difficult but is genuinely in search of herself and someone to love. She's something of a fatalist and definitely superstitious: That queen of spades she comes across in the street is a sure sign of bad things ahead. Since Rohmer is the subtlest of film makers, we scarcely realize we're identifying with Delphine until she meets her moment of truth in Biarritz. At last a catalyst arrives in the shapely form of a confident blonde Swede named Lena (Carita), who goes topless on the beach and becomes determined to bring Delphine out of her gloom. (Lena is lots like the Arielle Dombasle character in "Pauline at the Beach.")
Rohmer has a wondrous sense of spontaneity, a great sense of discovery, yet knows exactly how to get wherever he's going. His films are like a breath of fresh air, yet as scrupulously shaped and precisely timed as a minuet. They play like real life, which nevertheless is perceived as a comedy--rueful, painful, but so often absurdly, gently funny.
Rohmer is terrific at stringing you along but a master at the payoff. There's a scene with Lena and a couple of guys she's rounded up for Delphine and herself that is truly classic. At a table on a restaurant balcony Lena flirts playfully with the gregarious Joel (Joel Comarlot) in several languages. We're so diverted by her healthy, joyous high spirits that we forget entirely how they might be affecting Delphine--how she can see that Lena's play is only leading to casual sex, which is exactly what Delphine is not looking for and from which she is constantly running. Later on, in the film's rapturously inspired final sequence, Delphine says it all when she complains that men so rarely see women as the individuals they are.
"Summer" (rated a rather severe R) achieves a kind of perfection with its clear, easy flow of images--not one of which, by the way, is a travelogue-style "great shot"--and with its rhythmic pacing counterpointing the conversation scenes for which Rohmer is famous. There is something miraculous too in Marie Riviere's portrayal of Delphine, for she makes her so engaging, so expressive, that she never depresses us with her unhappiness but rather impresses us with her integrity. Her Delphine is a splendid addition to Rohmer's gallery of amusing, though always loving, portraits of determined women.
'SUMMER' ('Le Rayon Vert') An Orion Classics release produced by Margaret Menegoz for Les Films du Losange with the cooperation of the French Ministry of Culture and PTT. Writer-director Eric Rohmer. Camera Sophie Maintigneux. Music Jean-Louis Valero. Film editor Maria-Luisa Garcia. With Marie Riviere, Lisa Heredia, Beatrice Romand, Rosette, Eric Hamm, Vanessa Leleu, Irene Skobline, Carita, Joel Comarlot, Marc Vivas, Vincent Gauthier. In French, with English subtitles.
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.
MPAA rating: R (under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian).