A dark character study extrapolated from the writings of Henry James, François Truffaut’s The Green Room tells a twisted love story through the prism of grief so powerful it compels a man to all but withdraw from the human experience. Adding to the tragedy of the piece is the irony that loss brings the protagonist into intimate contact with a woman who is broken in the same way, but not to the same degree; therefore, the promise of renewal hovers over a story about a man resigned to oblivion. Tackling these grim themes in his characteristically literary style, Truffaut crafts an experience that is sometimes more intellectual than it is visceral, so some viewers will find the piece icy and perhaps even impenetrable. For those willing to accept Truffaut’s disinterest in striking crowd-pleasing chords while performing this particular sonata, The Green Room is intriguing.
Set in the 1920s, the picture stars Truffaut as Julien Davenne, a World War I veteran haunted not only by the war but also by the death of his beloved wife. While working as an editor for a newspaper that has fallen from popularity—one of the film’s myriad metaphors representing decay—Julien pursues his real passion, which is building a shrine to his late spouse. The “green room” of the title includes photographs and souvenirs, so on a spiritual level, the room represents a space where Julian can imbibe his wife’s essence until he’s intoxicated. Wallowing inside the green room is the only pleasure that Julien allows himself, because the rest of his life is fraught. He shares lodgings with a housekeeper, whom he tasks with errands that Julien considers beyond his emotional capacity, and with a deaf-mute boy, whom Julien traumatizes by showing slides depicting war dead.
The implication is that Julien has disappeared so deeply into an abyss of mourning that he’s like a black hole sucking other objects in with the force of his gravitational pull. Julien even extends animus beyond the grave, because when a luminary of his former acquaintance dies, Julien alienates his publisher by writing a eulogy that takes the form of a poison-pen letter. The only glimmer of brightness in Julien’s life is his relationship with Cécilia Mandel (Nathalie Baye), an assistant at an auction house. He meets her while reviewing estate-sale artifacts in order to find something that once belonged to his wife. Later, once Julien discovers that Cécilia is also paralyzed by loss, he draws her into a plan for building a grander shrine than the green room, a massive vault honoring all of Julien’s friends and loved ones who have died.
The Green Room is simultaneously obvious and subtle. On a surface level, the film is a scientific study of the way grief can conquer life if given fertile ground in which to plant its bitter seeds. On a deeper level, however, the film is about human connection. One gets the sense, for instance, that Julien exhausted his full measure of love while building a world with his wife, so her death snuffed a flame inside of him. Seen from that perspective, the arc of Julien’s relationship with Cécilia has a cosmic quality, if one is willing to belabor a metaphor—she’s a celestial object drawn by the magnetism of the aforementioned black hole, and she not only resists the invitation to disappear but also tries to find a spark inside the dead star that she can reignite.
The Green Room: GROOVY