13 May 2010
We all know someone like her. Delphine (Marie Rivière) always seems vaguely dissatisfied, depressed, adrift. She’s so pretty and romantic, yet she can turn something like the question of where to go for summer vacation into a drama. Her friends harangue her, frustrated by her languid helplessness. She bursts into tears a little too frequently — and then there’s the magical thinking. She believes that the universe sends her portents via the color green (it is her “color for the year”). She’s the protagonist of “Summer” (or “Le Rayon Vert,” 1986, one of director Eric Rohmer’s talky “Comedies and Proverbs” films), but she’s hard to like. Is she merely an object of fun, or is Rohmer using her to advance a larger statement?
If this were a 2010 film Delphine would see a life coach, pop SSRIs, and weep upon reading books like Lori Gottlieb’s that advises women to settle for Mr. Good Enough. But the problem would still be there, and it would still have no name. She’s lonely and seems to realize she’s nearly a cliché; yet she’s not willing to adopt the bright-sidedness her friends insist will resolve her malaise. “I don’t know,” she offers weakly to a friend. “I’m not very operational in life, I’m not functional.”
Delphine’s general problems are magnified when her best friend bails out on their summer vacation plans. She doesn’t want to travel alone, but neither does she want to travel to Ireland (not warm enough) with her sister’s family (it will only accentuate Delphine’s loneliness). She spends a few days with a group of acquaintances in Cherbourg, but doesn’t fit in and finds herself insinuating that she might still be dating her long-gone boyfriend. It gets worse when she feels the need to defend her vegetarianism to a largely unsympathetic group: it’s as if she’s defending her whole life, not simply her food politics. Isn’t picking a lettuce the same as killing an animal, asks one of the other guests? “I don’t see it that way,” she says uncertainly, trying to convince them that her food choices exemplify her capacity for feeling, caring. She knows she’s not being logically consistent, but she won’t let the conversation move on — and as everyone else digs into their pork chops, she bumbles on. “To me, a lettuce … a lettuce is a friend, it’s lighter … vegetables are airier. I don’t know….”
She accepts the offer of an apartment in the Alps, but after going on a single hike simply grabs her bags and returns to Paris. Finally she makes a half-hearted trip to Biarritz where it’s hot and crowded — but before she bails out on that too, she meets another woman on her own: a gregarious Swede named Lena who appears to be a godsend, at least at first.
Lena loves traveling alone and flirting with men. She’s openminded and optimistic, a go-getter. “A guy won’t come to you,” she says matter-of-factly, before revealing her thrust-and-parry philosophy of flirtation:
Lena: “You mustn’t reveal your own feelings right away. …It’s like a card game: you can’t reveal what’s in your hand right away.”
Delphine, looking downcast: “My hand is empty.”
Lena: “You must have something!”
Delphine, beginning to cry: “I don’t have anything.”
Lena: “Delphine! It’s really not sad!” …
Delphine, distraught: “If I had something to show, people would soon see it, that’s all!”
Delphine doesn’t play games, yet she yearns for magical transformation like that described in Jules Verne’s Le Rayon Vert: the notion that if one is lucky enough to see the rare meteorological phenomenon called the “green flash” — a ray of green light that appears at the final moment before the sun sets completely on the horizon — one will experience a full understanding of one’s own feelings, and perhaps intuit the feelings of others as well. Her yearning for such heightened self-knowledge is so strong that when she meets a sweet man in the train station and uncharacteristically agrees to spends a late afternoon with him, she finds herself placing all her hopes — for herself, for him — on the appearance of the green flash at sunset.
Now, I harbor a true hatred for the hapless spinster trope — so you must believe me when I say I watched much of “Summer” moving between recognizing and recoiling at Delphine’s most annoying traits and feeling a surprising fascination with her determination to be the heroine of her own life. This film is certainly more comedy than proverb — we are intended to laugh at her follies, but this is no broad farce nor an example of winking misygyny. The film demands that we begin to experience her crazy hopes — such that when she finds a green playing card on the beach and flips it over to find the jack of hearts, we feel that perhaps that boy in the train station will prove to be more than just Mr. Good Enough.
It’s now been more than sixty years since the publication of Simone de Beauvoir’s Le Deuxième Sexe (now out in a brilliant new translation), yet women are still being told they ought to feel things in the same way men do, and that they need to make themselves happy. I think as much as “Summer” wants us to laugh at Delphine, it also wants us to inhabit her desire for the green flash, the self-understanding that won’t come if she acquiesces to the advice her friends offer. As we wait for the sun to set and tears of hope and dread run down Delphine’s face (again), we are stopped short by something beyond comedy or cliché. Lolly Willowes, anyone?