As Delphine, the lonely but defiant Paris secretary at the center of Le Rayon Vert, Marie Rivière creates an emotionally rich portrait of a young woman disappointed in love who transfers her energies into an anxious quest for the ideal summer vacation. In this fifth of Eric Rohmer’s six-film cycle of “Comedies and Proverbs,” the writer-director spends the first 80 of its 98 minutes treading territory that most movie romances consign to the backstory, as Delphine, in the wake of a two-year-old broken engagement she has yet to put behind her, makes unfulfilling trips to a trio of resorts, encountering souls both nonplussed and sympathetic while, by her expectations as a modern single female, not “meeting anyone.” Those who find Rohmer heroines difficult—that is, demanding because they are three-dimensional, non-formulaic creations with an intricate set of foibles and needs—might even be won over by the depth and poignancy of Delphine, one of its maker’s most generously etched characters, perhaps given its extra layer of vigor by Rivière’s credit as a collaborator on the scenario.
Retitled Summer for American release, the film opens in a stifling Paris of early July. Delphine complains that her Left Bank apartment holds the heat all too well, and a retired elder who advises her that a holiday by the sea is entirely unnecessary—“We have the Seine!”—is answered with a single close-up of the filthy river. When her partner in a journey to Greece bails two weeks before their trip, Delphine casts about frenetically for an alternative, balking at camping in Ireland with her sister’s family, and receiving little succor from friends: “Look at how sad you are!” scolds one. A jaunt to Cherbourg with extroverted, big-haired pal Françoise (Rosette) turns sour when her friend’s family is put off by Delphine’s vegetarianism, seasickness, and solitary walks in the woods; “You’re a plant,” she’s bluntly told. An Alpine trek lasts only a few hours before one of her regular crying jags sends the frustrated dilettante back to the city, and then, heading south to Biarritz, she finds the shore packed with hordes of bathers, including a topless Swedish coquette (Carita) who draws her into an abortive foursome with a par of cruising bozos. Only Delphine accidentally overhearing a beachside discussion of a Jules Verne novel concerning the “flash of green” that can be seen at the last moment of a clear-skied sunset hints at deliverance; seeing the green ray, goes its legend, means “you can read your own feelings and others too.”
Because this Rayon Vert is a comedy, Rohmer and Rivière supply a closer encounter with the flash for a climax, along with the appearance of a promising stranger (Vincent Gauthier), yet without seeming to cure Delphine’s darkness and doubt with a human or mythical panacea. Isolating his depressed protagonist with deceptively simple long shots of her lone wanderings, or placing her in front of the churning foam of waves hitting a seawall, Rohmer ultimately rebuts her gloomy monologues of self-denial: “I’m not the adventurous type…If I had anything to give, people would see it.” Delphine’s ultimate acceptance of her innate adventurousness and worth results, for an audience appreciative of Rohmer’s wit and humanist fire, in a yelp timed to an atmospheric phenomenon, but birthed by the transcendence of self-recognition.