Close-Up on Eric Rohmer's "The Green Ray": An Interview with Marie Rivière

An interview with the actress and creative force who collaborated with Eric Rohmer to make his 1986 masterpiece, now playing on MUBI UK.
David Jenkins

Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. The Green Ray is playing on MUBI UK starting today through December 5.

Smitten by a viewing of Eric Rohmer's 1972 film, Love in the Afternoon, French actress and filmmaker Marie Rivière felt compelled to write the director a letter expressing her fondness of the film and offering her professional services. By 1978, she had been given a small role in Perceval, the director's minimalist take on Chrétien de Troyes's 12 century romantic text. Rivière was later given an expanded role in 1981's The Aviator's Wife, the first entry in Rohmer's six-film cycle of Comedies & Proverbs. By 1986, Rivière was called upon to play Delphine in the director's semi-improvised masterpiece, The Green Ray, a film whose form and content innovatively draws upon the actor's personal experiences and fragile emotional state at the time. Such was her connection with Rohmer and his work, Rivière made a documentary, In the Company of Eric Rohmer in 2010, which was completed just a few months before its subject died. As part of their continuing MUBI Mondays season, London-based film magazine Little White Lies are hosting a free screening of The Green Ray, while MUBI is dedicating a month to director's remarkable oeuvre. For more on the film, see my article at Little White Lies. Rivière allowed us to call her while she was on holiday in Clermont-Ferrand, a location that regular readers of this site will know as the setting for Rohmer's My Night with Maud. 

NOTEBOOK: When was the last time you saw The Green Ray?

MARIE RIVIÈRE: The last time I saw it was...last summer in New York. I was invited to the BAMcinématek because they did a new release of The Green Ray and Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle [1987] and they wanted me to promote it. I was asked to talk about Rohmer in general, not specifically about the film. That was the last time I saw The Green Ray.

NOTEBOOK: What was your experience of watching it again?

RIVIÈRE: First, I paid a lot of attention to the print. When you see it now, it's often damaged, but this one was a new restoration. It was good. But I worry a lot about the print, as this is a film where the colours need to be perfect. If they are too dark or too bright, it changes the meaning of the film. There was another screening in another venue in New York from a different print, and even though it was quite dark, we could still see the green ray at the end. In the new one, the colours were too bright and you couldn't see it. So it wasn't what Eric Rohmer wanted. He wanted the green ray to exist at the end. If the colours are too dark, it gives the film a sad meaning which is not supposed to be there.

NOTEBOOK: Do you have fond memories of making the film?

RIVIÈRE: Oh yes. All the dialogue came from me, but within the broad frame of what Rohmer wanted me to say. He had a little book which he always held. He would write down just the key sentences. He was very precise. I'd ask him: what am I doing, more or less? He followed me, and I followed him as well. I followed him to the end of his film

NOTEBOOK:How many takes did you do of each scene?

RIVIÈRE: Always just one. The most amazing thing is that, during the shooting, none of us saw any rushes or  footage. There were only three of us. Rohmer, Françoise Etchegaray, who was a producer, Sophie Maintigneux who was cinematographer and Claudine Nougaret who was sound. There was just four people behind the camera, so no-one had time to go back to Paris to visit the laboratories and watch to see if everything was OK. At the end of summer, in September, Eric finally discovered what he had filmed. He hadn't seen a thing. It was really great because, he ended up using nearly everything he had shot.

NOTEBOOK: Did you do much preparation before the start of the shoot?

RIVIÈRE: Not really. He loved the idea of mixing documentary and fiction. He loved the idea of making a documentary, but doing it with someone who could lead it forward. He got in touch with me because he thought I would be good at improvisation. I was not sure about that. He trusted me, and I don't really know why. He gave me some subjects to improvise around. He told me that the film was all about the loneliness of this girl. I told him that I was lonely at that time. I was living alone. When I visit my family in the film, that's my real family. When I go on holiday in the mountains, it's to a place I know very well and it was a place where I had been alone in the past. When we got to Cherbourg in Normandy, we are with Rosette's real family. Then we finished the film where Eric wanted to go. Biarritz was where he goes on holiday. I didn't know the place at all. And when we were there, he gave me the green ray. I was very happy. It was a gift for me.

NOTEBOOK: Did you always know you would get the green ray?

RIVIÈRE: Yes. Yes, yes, yes. It was decided before we started filming. He gave me the book by Jules Verne, but I don't think I ever read it. I didn't want to read it because he'd already told me what happens in the end. The two lovers, instead of looking at the green ray rising up from the sea, they look at each other. Which is a mistake, because the water rises up over them and they're drowned. So I said, "Oh no, I can't read that!" But then he told me he wanted to tell the story, but with a more positive spin. The lovers look at the green ray together, and it's a gift to them. As he had already told me the end, I didn't want to read the book. He wanted me also to read Dostoevsky's The Idiot, which is what Delphine reads on the beach. But I don't think I read that either.

NOTEBOOK: Do you enjoy improvisation on camera?

RIVIÈRE: Yes I did, and I still do! I still continue to love it. When you start improvising, the thing you often naturally do is speak too much. You think that the more you speak the more you look natural. There is no need to do this. It's just something that I learned from improvising on this film. You don't need to talk. You've just got to let things count. I like to improvise. I don't know why.

NOTEBOOK: Do you get much opportunity to do it in films or theatre?

RIVIÈRE: Yes, occasionally. But I also like to work from a script. I notice that sometimes I am employed in films because I have these improvisation skills. This works well when you have directors who don't really pay close attention to the text on the page. They want someone to bring something else to the film. I like theatre, because it's very different. It's not like talking in life. The text is already a piece of art in itself.

NOTEBOOK: What advice did Rohmer give you were creating the character of Delphine?

RIVIÈRE: The only thing he wanted was to for me to be in strong physical shape. For instance, when we were in Biarritz, he really wanted me to be alone, even to the point where he didn't want Françoise to come and see the shoot down there. He told the technical team to always leave me alone. It wasn't that frightening for me, as I actually like being alone. That was the only advice he gave to me.

NOTEBOOK: Was it very different experience to when you worked on Perceval or The Aviator's Wife?

RIVIÈRE: Oh, yes, totally different. It's always different to be reading lines from a script. His text was for Perceval was very tightly constructed and very literary. But even though it's literary, it's also very simple. Of course, Perceval is a medieval text by Chrétien de Troyes, so the words aren't really by Rohmer. But it is his translation. It was a huge job. Even though it's a French text, it needed to be translated specifically for modern French audiences. In the past it was always translated into prose, never into verse. Eric ended up translating 2000 verses. His aim with that film was that the dialogue could be understood by normal viewers.

If we talk about An Autumn Tale [1998] or The Aviator's Wive, those were both made from his own original script. Working on An Autumn Tale was sometimes quite difficult. I would say lines, and then say to Rohmer, "But I would never talk like this to my friends!" His would just say, "Yes you would! Look at me. Listen to me. It's very easy," and he would say the lines. But then I would say, "but you're a man!" In the end, he just wanted me to respect the text he wrote. In these other films, I tried to change words and nuances, but he would never allow it. He always listened so hard to the way the lines were spoken. But also, he looked at the way the lines were spoken.

NOTEBOOK: How did Rohmer cast the supporting actors in the film?

RIVIÈRE: Well, there's a scene where a Swedish girl and I talk to these two boys in a cafe. Originally there was just one, and he was an actor. But Eric said that we need another one. One of the girls went down to the beach and asked a random boy if he wanted to be in a movie. He was a student. He was the one who is singing with Swedish girl. I don't know if he was drunk, or what. He was odd. Also, I remember that this was Sophie Maintigneux's first film. She was 22 years old at the time. I could see that he would occasionally put his hand on her shoulder and push her into place. He wanted her to physically move the camera forward instead of using a zoom, and when he did that I knew that he wanted something more intense from me. I could feel him directing.

NOTEBOOK: Who selected Delphine's clothes as they appear to be an extremely important signifier of her mood?

RIVIÈRE: Ha, I was asked that in New York. When I see how she's dressed, it makes me wonder what we were thinking back then. Especially in Normandy. Her clothes are absolutely awful! The trousers are ghastly. And the terrible jumper she's wearing was not mine. It was Françoise' brother-in-law's jumper which he lent to me because it was cold. You can see him wearing it later. The only thing we decided upon was the red jacket. We bought it from a thrift store on the Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris. I bought the green beret myself in Biarritz. We were preparing to shoot, but the team had not arrived yet and it was very windy. My hair was blowing in my face and I didn't know what to do. I went to this small hat shop and I decided to buy a green one. Maybe because of the green ray? I don't remember exactly. Eric was okay with it. So we shot the scene with it.

NOTEBOOK: There are some incredibly moving scenes in The Green Ray where Delphine starts to cry. Do you find it easy to cry on camera?

RIVIÈRE: I cry so much in the film! But, you know, each time is very different. The first time is when Delphine is in the garden with her friends in the suburbs of Paris. I'm crying while sat on some steps. He wanted me to cry at that moment. He wanted me to say my lines, and then cry. And so I did. Then, in the countryside in Cherbourg, it was different. We had shot the scene with the lunch where I'm saying that I don't eat meat. He had secretly told the other actors to just keep asking me questions about my vegetarianism and stress me out so the improvisation could take place. Otherwise I could have just said I don't eat meat and ended it there. I was obliged to answer these questions. It created cinema, you know?

The next day, we went wandering in the countryside. He didn't know the place at all. It was him, Françoise, the two girls, the camera and the sound. He told me to just walk where I wanted to. I came to a fence, which you can see in the film. So I turned around and started to walk back. And I just started to look at him for direction. He made  a sign for me to keep walking. I didn't know where I could go! I walked down another path and they all followed me. And then there was another fence which was on the edge of a field. I was basically trapped—I couldn't go anywhere else. I turned to the camera. The team was looking at me, and I could see that Rohmer was waiting for something to happen. He made a gesture with his hand for the team to stay still and keep shooting. I then understood that I had to find something. I knew that this was was coming after the scene of the lunch. I suddenly felt the exclusion, both mine and the character's. I paused. I knew he was expecting something from me. So I gave him my tears.

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