There are plenty of films which talk about freedom. It is one of those themes that popular cinema was destined to celebrate: release from the everyday drudge, explosion of repressed energies, flights of fancy.
More often than not, films allow a dream of freedom only on the condition that spectators will not pursue the idea once outside the theatre. It is a much rarer thing to encounter a film which explores the possibility of its own freedom – which inspires by example, not by duplicitous lesson or compromised wish.
Éric Rohmer's The Green Ray is a truly free film made by a truly free man. Only age, wisdom and the gradual, insistent mastery of a practice over many years can form a director like Rohmer and put him in a position to make this masterpiece – which is, as well, a profoundly experimental film.
The Green Ray is impossible to adequately summarise or describe. More or less improvised on the spot by director, cast and crew solely on the basis of a slim anecdotal sketch and a pre-existing text (Jules Verne's tale of the green ray, a special quality of light emitted by the setting sun at rare, special moments), the film breathes, moves and sounds like virtually no other.
Rohmer once pointed out that, at the start of the Nouvelle Vague, he and colleagues including Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette were interested in two quite opposing, contradictory traditions. On the one hand, documentary cinema with its chance spontaneity and immediacy; and on the other, the perfectly prefabricated, contrived, artificial mise en scène cinema of the Hollywood studios.
For his part, Rohmer worked on to a third position, a synthesis of these two traditions: he learnt to see, to find his fictional mise en scène in the street, in conversations, in the everyday.
Like all Rohmer's films, The Green Ray presents scarcely anything beyond an account of a few well-chosen human interactions. But he discovers (or uncovers) a new looseness and inventiveness that is sheer magic to behold. A moment of magic is also what the film is about, and what its main performer (the divine Marie Rivière) circles endlessly and ultimately finds.
To find and capture the fleeting, to know the fruit of freedom in that moment: this is the miracle that Rohmer himself performs in The Green Ray. The film is a great gift to its audience, impossible to refuse.
© Adrian Martin November 1987