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November 15, 2012

Review: Le Rayon Vert

NAPOLEON DYNAMITE meets AMELIE POULAIN. Or, the grandmother of both films.

Le Rayon Vert is a classic. It’s not black and white, it’s not silent, and you probably never heard of the actors. The director’s name, Eric Rohmer, may easily be confused with a military general.

It’s title is apparently taken from a Jules Verne novel, but this is no sci-fi. No, Le Rayon Vert is the same down to earth, independent filmmaking that made Napoleon Dynamite seems so at home with audiences. And the main character is sort of the kind of hopeless romantic as Amelie. Only, she’s a bit more self-absorbed and socially maladroit, perhaps like young master Dynamite. (Or a female, French version of him.)

As a historian, I might want to compare this to earlier films, plays, poems, novels, whatever. But, I won’t. Le Rayon Vert is history in itself (1986 wasn’t yesterday), part of the French New Wave movement which separated low budget art films from the cheap b-movie horror and other exploitation flicks. (Although some art films might seem like exploitation, but that’s another story.)

If you like the randomness and realness of Woody Allen, but can’t stand his crudeness, then this PG rated film might be for you. Mind you, it’s French, and a lot of it is set at the beach, so people won’t be as well clothed as they are in Napoleon Dynamite’s Mid West America.

Enough of the sales pitch. If I get any commission on mentioning this film, it’ll be like one penny per ten million visitors. So, let’s try and tear it apart.

The main character seems to cry for no reason. She’s an introvert, doggone it. She doesn’t like people who butt in, give her advice, try to run her life for her, and interrupt her sentences. You know, extroverts who think they are introverts. Those people annoy her.

Everyone else around her appears shallow. She’s a vegetarian. A book reader. Likes going for walks. Will do the dishes to avoid big outings. Isn’t really into the club scene or sailors who are leaving the next morning. She’s not a snob, probably not even a college grad, just literate.

If she were more of a talker, like Napoleon, she might call those who surround her “idiots,” but in a way she feels like an “idiot” herself. She doesn’t think that she’s interesting.

Her ideal man is not a macho he-man or a millionaire. He’s not a super athlete. No, it’s just someone she can relate to (although she never manages those words). And that’s just what she doesn’t have.

So, why the title?

Well, she hears some old people talking about a phenomenon of the green rays at the end sunset. An old man, sitting near his wife and some other old people he may or may not know, misunderstands a question on whether he has read a Jules Verne novel. Our heroine is on the outside of this conversation of old people, but she listens. We know that this conversation interests her on many levels, she wants to be around people who actually think, not just act. People who are interested in each other for their minds, not just physical pleasures like eating and dancing.

That’s what this film is aimed at too, people who can watch and think, not just look in awe. Sure, there are scantily dressed people at beaches that airheads might enjoy watching. And there are laughs, every good movie has laughs. And the ending is not too depressing.

So, if you take along someone who is an airhead, they may enjoy parts of the film.

But, it’s not Hollywood. The lighting is mainly natural, I don’t even think they used reflectors, and the sets and people appear “flat” at times. The sound is audible enough not to have to look at the subtitles if you know French, but it won’t win any awards.

And that brings up another selling point. The dialogue, at the start, seems like one of those “learn language” audio cassettes or CDs. If you ever tried to teach yourself a language through books, tapes, or night school, you might recognize some of the dialogue. Teach yourself, BBC, Berlitz, continuing education’s photocopied booklet could all be sued by the director.  (Or perhaps sue him.)

The heroine is talking about vacation options in simple French. I didn’t notice a lot of slang, jargon, regional dialect.

It’s kind of annoying, as I had an idea of doing something similar: taking beginning language learner phrases and making a simple story out of them.  You know, like those other self-instruction manuals tried to, but make it a full movie.

Here are some actual lines from the script as I remember them (well, I didn’t read the subtitles.)

Where are you from? Are you German? No North of that. Dutch? Further North. I am Swedish. I prefer holidays by the seaside. I go to Ireland every year. Oh, but Ireland is too cold. It rains all the time in Ireland.  Maybe another time.

I’ll have to look in my old first year foreign language learning (or teaching) books sometime to see if there’s anything that Rohmer left out.

If you learned the language on tape, you’ll get a double treat, because the microphone sounds exactly the same as the ones used on low budget language cassettes. Some of the actors seem more like radio people, these aren’t stars. It’s a very well done home movie, less glossy even than Napoleon Dynamite.

If you’ve learned year-one French, try watching it without reading the subtitles, as kind of a self-test.

None of this means I dislike the movie. I actually went to the cinema with a bit of eyestrain, thinking that maybe I should have stayed home, and felt better at the end. It was relaxing.

I liked to see universal sentiments played out on screen. It’s easy enough to sympathize with someone who feels peer pressure. And it’s good to see an adult cry over seemingly small things like where she is going on vacation, or where she isn’t, or that her work mates are pestering her about being alone. (I think they were work mates. Who are all these weird people talking to her? Some are family members, but others seem to be near strangers.)

Anyway, nice film to see in a cinema. I wouldn’t recommend it on video, especially if you’re distracted by the fridge, the phone, or your social media gizmos, as it’s very slow paced at times. I don’t think it would do well on television either.

But, if you just want to get away from it all, and aren’t in the mood for loud explosions and in-your-face crass, this might be the perfect night out.