This Magic Moment: LE RAYON VERT (1986) and FRANCES HA (2012)

November 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

Though I still question the decision to change Le rayon vert’s original, apt title (which translates to The Green Ray) to Summer for the American release, it allows for some ruminating on director Eric Rohmer’s use of time in the relatively simple narrative. Organized around heroine Delphine’s allotted few weeks of vacation time, the most frequent formal intrusion onto the narrative is the use of intertitles to indicate the date as the days slip away. It makes for a depressing series of diary entries: on the 22nd, Delphine slipped away from her acquaintances to stand by the beach alone and cry freely; on the 23rd, she made an excuse and went to Paris for a day by herself before deciding she couldn’t take that either.

Its spiritual descendant, chosen rather arbitrarily for this essay, Frances Ha, also organizes itself via intertitles. The film, directed by Noah Baumbach and written by its star Greta Gerwig, has a far more conventional and classical progression than Rohmer’s picture. It begins with its title character in stasis, a rewarding friendship and living relationship with her best friend Sophie, a dynamic that soon becomes upset by progressions in their love lives and Sophie’s changing attitudes toward her long-term friendship with Frances. Sophie’s boyfriend “Patchy” rubs Frances the wrong way, but he has a serious career with upward mobility and triggers some changes that split up the two friends, sending Frances on a series of new living arrangements as she struggles to adapt to life without Sophie at her side.

The intertitles, then, are addresses, place that Frances finds herself attempting to adjust to in a fashion similar to Delphine’s frustrated quest to make the most of her vacation time. Frances bounces from her flat with Sophie, her time with friends Benjy and Lev, a trip home to see her parents, a brief stay in the apartment of fellow dancer Rachel, which leads her to an ill-considered weekend stay in Paris, where the film collides, briefly, with Rohmer’s before Frances flies back to the States to recoup her expenses working at her alma mater. The Paris weekend, the only chapter of the film in which Frances is truly alone, provides a true intersection of Frances Ha and Le rayon vert via their major shared theme, that old chestnut that “no matter where you go, there you are.”

It’s terribly frustrating to watch Frances dither away her time in one of the great cities, sleeping the day away and inquiring whether it’s too late to buy a ticket for Puss in Boots, but mostly because her spur-of-the-moment decision to take an acquaintance up on the opportunity to use their vacation home actually comprises another opportunity not to make decisions. Her stay is cut short by the Monday meeting with the head of the dance company for which she apprentices, presenting an opportunity for an office job from which she spitefully demurs.

Frances Ha has a specificity to itself, I think, that Le rayon vert simply doesn’t care to approach. You could easily attribute this to my total lack of knowledge about Parisian society in 1986 or their vacation habits, which are so alien to my experience of the working world, or you can follow another line of interrogation, which indicates that Rohmer’s script simply concerns itself with more universal human problems than Gerwig’s does. In one sense, the pop culture references and general inclination to talk about pop culture at all dates Gerwig’s script considerably, with characters like Benjy who live in absurdly upscale apartments while writing a spec screenplay for Gremlins 3 and flirting with a gig on Saturday Night Live. As well, the class issue comes into play during Frances’ stay with him and Lev, as she frets about their arrangement in which the two young men take on a larger share of the rent to accommodate her low income and lack of rich relatives.

Pithily, Gerwig and Baumbach’s film is about what it means to be a young adult in an upscale part of the world in the early 21st century, while Rohmer’s film is about what it means to simply be. To be around other people, to be in public, to be on the beach, to be a guest, to be in the company of strangers, to be a vegetarian, or to be with a man at sunset and wonder whether one can change their attitude toward life. Each intertitle in Rohmer’s picture signals another opportunity for Delphine to make a decision about the way she lives in the world, whether she wants to ‘say yes’ to a night with some beautiful strangers, to brave the mild awkwardness of imposing on a family she has known only briefly, or to take a chance on a kind young man who likes Dostoevsky, and her.

It’s a simple device, but both films underline the isolation of their heroines in physical space. Crucially, Rohmer’s approach has an unsettling quality, as in the abrupt opening shot that shows two women, with no significance to the narrative other than working with Delphine, sitting at a desk and chitchatting idly. After a few seconds Delphine enters for the first time from the right and stands, somewhat awkwardly, at the edge of the frame and answers the telephone as her coworkers go about their conversation without paying attention to her.

The incongruity of that opening shot, so unremarkable for the first image in a movie and so strangely composed with the two women occupying no more than the bottom half of the frame, reveals its purpose once the tall Delphine fills the right third of the image and learns that her friend has made other vacation plans, that she will spend the rest of the film trying to find a place to fit in. Rohmer’s compositional devices are pretty simple in this regard, and it feels truly explosive when, in Delphine’s last scene of failing to fit in with a new group, he pushes in slowly on her frustrated face to place her alone in the image, finally central and ultimately isolated.

Frances Ha, as one of a particular strain of independent comedies of manners, necessarily focuses on group settings and conversations which its heroine has difficulty following, or simply not disrupting. Typical of Baumbach and Gerwig’s more commercial approach, though, some party scenes are split into a few short one-liners and throwaway gags, accompanied by the kind of upbeat, jazzy music that gives the film its particular atmosphere. Said atmosphere derives mostly from nostalgic memories of French New Wave movies, I think in particular Jules et Jim, which concerns itself with male friendship as Frances Ha does with female friendship, and is given over to formalist flourishes like Frances’ run-dance to Bowie’s “Modern Love” that deliberately references Leos Carax’s 1986 Mauvais sang.

Frances’ nutty kinetic energy, of a piece with her frustrated ambition to be a dancer with the touring company, draws on Gerwig’s particular star quality in a way that drives the film’s physical comedy as the isolating compositions mentioned above. As well as scenes like the dinner party in which Frances learns secondhand that Sophie will be moving to Japan, which cuts from the two-shot pattern that has dominated the conversation to an image of Frances alone against the dark background as she processes the news, many simple shot setups derive a visual gag from Gerwig’s disruption of fairly conventional visual grammar. These can be as simple as the long shot of Frances working a table at her old college and standing alongside a current student, both in the same T-shirt but Frances’ about two sizes bigger due to her height.

My favorite bit of physical comedy is the conversation between Frances and Rachel after the latter has agreed to let Frances stay in her apartment. Baumbach shoots the scene almost like a walk-and-talk, one in which the camera starts further back as they approach from further down the trail in the park. The frame moves only slightly to accommodate their movement until they briefly come to a stop for the bit of unwelcome banter in which Frances tries to re-enact her play-fighting habit with Sophie, shoving Rachel twice out of sight to her chagrin, before she re-enters, perfect hair now all in a tizzy.

Rohmer’s diminished visual energy, on the other hand, seems to complement Delphine’s discomfort with movement, as well as actress Marie Riviere’s own physicality. Like Gerwig, she is tall, but noticeably slender and almost gangly. Her movements, whether of discomfort or pleasure, are nearly always inward, drawing her elbows closer, ducking her head, twiddling her thumbs, or thrusting her face up as if to avoid looking at someone who has paid her a compliment. It’s most noticeable during her last escape attempt, in which she suddenly dashes away from a cafe where she and her Swedish acquaintance have drawn the attention of two handsome young men. The dark-haired fellow at her side pursues, insisting “We were a foursome!”, perhaps feeling a similar anxiety. Her implosion of acting, shrinking away from him, elbows pinned to her sides, hands clenched tight, is one of the film’s most empathetic moments.

Ultimately, Le rayon vert draws its title from the conclusion, in which Delphine and a man she meets at the bus station sit on the cliff overlooking the sea at Saint-Jean-de-Luz to observe the rare green flash, the last ray of sunset that sometimes changes color in a phenomenon seen only rarely. As the man encourages her to spend more of her vacation with him, she begins to cry, sensing that perhaps things are about to go right, drawing closer to him as he puts his arms around her, finally moving further toward the center of the frame not to draw back into herself but to approach someone else. The last few shots are a miniature sequence of breathless suspense as Rohmer cuts between the couple and the sunset, until the orb disappears beneath the horizon in a blip of color and Delphine yelps with delight. It’s not just the titular ray that has significance here (though it’s another component of the picture’s universal appeal, in tying its heroine’s inner conflict to a cosmic phenomenon), but the mental process that we can see taking place as the sun dips lower in the sky, as Delphine accepts that perhaps things can work out after all.

Though they don’t have the same miraculous bent, I’m similarly enamored of the final scenes in Frances Ha, which take place after a drunken, intimate reunion between Sophie and Frances rekindles their friendship and Frances appears to have swallowed her ambitions. She takes the desk job at her old company and makes enough money to support some choreography work on the side, a performance of which serves as the happy denouement to the preceding anxiety and dislocation. Some critics have accused this ending of being too neat, or stranger still not dark enough for a specific tale about Frances and young people in her situation. As if supporting an unprofitable artistic venture with office work were such an outlandish pipe dream. I can jibe with the notion that rent in the boroughs is still too expensive for such, but honestly, it’s secondary to the actual significance of the ending.

Its meaning is set up in an earlier scene in the home of Rachel’s friends, where Frances confesses  one of her personal obsessions, a relationship fantasy that doesn’t lend itself to paraphrasing:

“It’s what I want in a relationship, which might explain why I’m single now…It’s hard to…It’s that thing when you’re with someone and they love you and you know it and you love them and they know it but it’s a party and you’re both talking to other people and they’re laughing and shining and you look across the room and catch each other’s eyes but not because you’re possessive or it’s precisely sexual but because that is your person in this life and it’s funny and sad but only because this life will end and it’s like this secret world that exists right there in public that no one else knows about. It’s sort of like how they say that other dimensions exist all around us but we don’t have the ability to perceive them. That’s what I want out of – out of a relationship, or out of life I guess, or love. Blah. I sound stoned.”

It’s not the most elegant dialogue, but it is deliberately structural screenwriting, in that like the conversation overheard by Delphine about Jules Verne’s novel “The Green Ray”, it uses a device apropos of nothing else in the film to set up a conclusion that will satisfy the script’s emotional stakes. In Frances Ha, the true ending (just before the grace note that satisfies the bizarre title’s dangling question) is that look, described in that party scene, that Sophie and Frances exchange at the reception following her dance recital, a warm qualifier to their still-complicated relationship. Like the closing shots of Le rayon vert that show Delphine accepting the boundaries of the frame and nestling inward, the conclusion of Frances’ story sees her dialing back her expectations for personal happiness and success. That’s what I find so entrancing in this ending, what both films say in their own way: how joyful an act it can be, just to settle. – Brendan

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