I attended a double bill of Eric Rohmer’s The Green Ray and Francois Truffaut’s The Soft Skin at the Pacific Cinematheque and was interested not just with what the films revealed of themselves but of each other and of other films in general. Both films, at their core, are about loneliness. Rohmer’s is about a woman so depressed so as to be unable to connect with the people around her and Truffaut’s is about a man betrayed by his loneliness, which manifests as longing for a woman who will become his mistress. The cinema and loneliness are existentially bound; both films and those who watch them are inherently lonely. No matter how close or endeared a character becomes to a viewer, they can only passively interact with them and the film, which itself is brought into existence by its’ creator in order to reach the viewer, can never know of its’ success or failure. And, of course, all movies are filmed in a confrontation of environment, people and the cold mechanized stare of the camera lens. Whether one would like to admit it or not, sitting in a cinema, either alone or with friends made strangers by the dark, the cinema is lonely. However, this makes cinema particularly adept at dealing with loneliness and as such, just as adept at quelling it. In a two-negatives-make-a-positive sort of way, the loneliness of viewer and of cinema console each other, the very origin of catharsis.
The neglect of Truffaut’s relatively unsung film surprises me. The Soft Skin is his closest work to pure cinema, and although I’m far from seeing all of his work, I consider it among his three best films (The 400 Blows and Small Change being the other two), and the most successful in his attempts to formally emulate Hitchcock, mostly because he does so without surrendering to the joy of simply copying a master and re-appropriates the style for his autonomous aims, which is not to say that the themes don’t overlap with those of Hitchcock, but that they are expressed intimately and personally. Like in Vertigo, the protagonist of the film desires an image of a woman rather than the real woman, and is doomed from the start to meet a tragic end of sorts (a completely different version than the one suffered by James Stewart). This tragic flaw seems to stem from a dishonesty of self, in the film’s most powerful sequence, after spending the evening with the woman he desires, the man walks her back to her hotel room, and gently coerces her to allow him in, she switches the light on, and he switches it off, an elaboration of a previously established formal device; He must hide from himself in the dark. Perhaps the light, much like that of the actual green ray of the sun to which Rohmer’s title refers, would carry with it some connotation of connectivity between self, environment and other people that would require him to confront his lies. The protagonist of Rohmer’s film is, in a sense, also a victim of her own conduct, but in her case it is her disposition, something she can’t necessarily control, that brings on her woes and her depression, which we must endure with her, is something that must simply run its’ course.
The Green Ray was conceived, along with Rohmer, by Marie Rivière, who inhabits the film as much as an actor possibly can. This makes her struggle one that is powerful to empathize with, and the intimacy we experience with her character is what makes the film so memorable. However, it isn’t any more intimate than Truffaut’s melodrama, which is able to match the affect through the formal presence of its’ auteur. This insight reveals itself when juxtaposing these films, and observing how their altogether different approaches, referring to Rohmer’s disarming form and emphasis on real people in real situations versus Truffaut’s high-on-Hollywood artfully composed style (complete with an aching Georges Delerue score), can ultimately achieve the same level of personal filmmaking, which constructs an automatic argument that the only filmmakers who make films impersonally are the bad ones, and that personally made films therefore can exist in any form. The Green Ray and The Soft Skin specifically, made twenty years apart, one in colour, one in black and white, are united through some core components of cinema: lights, lies, and loneliness.