Consumed by Love and Death - La Chambre Verte (The Green Room), directed by François Truffaut 1978

In The Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche describes Greek tragedy as the cataclysmic fusion between the Apollinian force that is governed by reason, and the Dionysian force that is governed by emotion. In opera, it is embodied in the liebestod (literally, love and death) of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde: a celebration of profound love eternally locked in the embrace of death. In literature, it is the unspoken motivation behind the meticulous von Aschenbach’s irrational attachment to the cherubic Tadzio in Thomas Mann’s novella, Death in Venice (adapted to film by Luchino Visconti in 1971). And then, there is The Green Room (1978), a thoughtful, reverent adaptation of Henry James’ The Altar of the Dead, an atypically static and somber film by François Truffaut. Critically reviled as incontrovertible proof of Truffaut’s increasing self-absorption, The Green Room is a remarkable, austere film: a haunting examination of love, obsession, and the guilt of survival.

Julien Davenne (François Truffaut) is a lonely, disillusioned war veteran who works for an obsolete, nearly defunct newspaper called The Globe (with a target audience of elderly people, its subscription base is literally dying). Having returned from the First World War physically unharmed, but racked with guilt over his fallen comrades and the untimely death of his wife, he is ideally suited to compose the compassionate, elegiacal tributes required for the newspaper’s obituary column. The film’s title sequence shows a weary, expressionless Julien, superimposed over a harrowing background montage of endless battle scenes and victims of war. From his methodical, dispassionate demeanor, it is evident that he is still mechanically sleepwalking through his civilian life. Emotionally fractured, Julien is, in fact, existentially dead, having resigned physical existence for the isolated introspection of his innate guilt (Truffaut’s dispassionate, dead-pan performance is intriguing). He spends his evenings looking at grotesque slides of war casualties with his son, Georges (Patrick Maleon), finding an incongruous, almost perverse, serenity in the idealization of capturing the essence of the moment of death. He sits alone in a green room, where he has carefully assembled his late wife’s possessions, talking to her, lamenting the growing distance between them.

While attempting to retrieve a ring belonging to his wife, Julien meets a pensive, charming auction secretary named Cecilia Mandel (Nathalie Baye), who remembers him as the curious man who saw his wife’s apparition at the moment of her death, and reveals to him that she has experienced a similar event. After an accidental fire destroys Julien’s green room, and Cecilia suffers a painful personal loss, Julien builds a memorial in the bombed ruins of an abandoned church, lighting individual candles for each of his lost beloved, and entrusts Cecilia as a guardian to the temple. However, when Julien realizes that his recently deceased colleague, Paul Massigny, an estranged childhood friend, is the inspiration behind Cecilia’s dedication to the temple, he withdraws from her. Their separation precipitates his physical decline.

A strong departure from the polished, beautifully constructed imagery of the Truffaut films photographed by Raoul Coutard (specifically, Jules and Jim [1961] and The Soft Skin [1964]), cinematographer Nestor Almendros uses an unnatural color palette that is washed and pale to set the thematic tone of the film. The opening war footages, filmed in black and white and processed with blue tint, appear raw and garishly monochromatic. Julien’s house, including the commemorative green room, appears dark, harsh, and uninviting in tepid, sickly colors. Julien is pale, unremarkable, and dour. The effect is brooding and somber, a reflection of Julien’s morbid preoccupation and his inability to find joy in living.

The parallels between von Aschenbach, the tragic hero of Death in Venice, and the impassive Julien Davenne, reflect their innately similar human nature. As von Aschenbach’s attraction to Tadzio (or more specifically, to the boy’s physical embodiment of youth, energy, and beauty) precipitates his liebestodic death in Death in Venice, so too does Julien’s obsession lead to his demise in The Green Room. Note that even the duality of von Aschenbach’s profession, a writer in the novella and a composer in the film, is reflected in Julien, a newspaper columnist described as a “virtuoso of obituaries.” Von Aschenbach, an intellectual who has never been governed by emotion, finds himself reluctantly succumbing to his suppressed passion. Despite a ravaging cholera epidemic, von Aschenbach is unable to leave Venice for fear of losing his beloved Tadzio. Figuratively, like Julien, von Aschenbach is surrounded by the pervasive specter of death. Aschenbach’s desire to reclaim his lost youth and vitality are transferred to the ideal image of Tadzio, and he is inevitably consumed by that desire.

Similarly, Julien is solely governed by his Apollinian intellect. His self-induced guilt of survival suppresses his innate Dionysian need for emotional connection. The appearance of Cecilia into his life proves to be a catalyst for the resurrection of his passion. As Catherine is the physical embodiment of the ideal Adriatic Island statue in Jules and Jim, Cecilia represents Julien’s ideal: a living personification of his love and deep respect for the dead. Their mutual love for the dead serves as a channel for his own surfacing emotions. It is the moment of revelation, upon reading Cecilia’s declaration of love, that propels the feverish Julien back to the memorial temple, to his beloved dead, and to Cecilia.

The film’s denouement appropriately occurs at the restored church temple where Julien and Cecilia meet for the last time. Surrounded by images of his haunted memories, and confronting the object of his affection, Julien realizes his capacity to equally love both the living and the dead. Julien’s acceptance of Cecilia’s past, demonstrated by his invitation to commemorate Cecilia’s beloved dead and light a candle for her former lover, Massigny, is a symbolic gesture of his realized love for her, and an acknowledgement of his suppressed emotions. In essence, the temple is not only a geographic location that ultimately unites the two lovers together, but is also a reflection of Julien’s soul, a figurative space where his Apollinian intellect fuses with his Dionysian passion. Julien has come to accept the cataclysmic forces into his weakened, physical frame, embracing life through his beloved Cecilia, and he collapses under the weight of his profound love.

The Green Room is an uncharacteristic departure for this stylistic auteur: a dark, devastating portrait of a man consumed by such profound grief that he is incapable of experiencing the beauty and joy of life. It is also a highly ambitious and provocative film, not only about a man’s self-destructive myopic obsession with loss and mortality, but also about paying homage to the people who have affected his life and are forever lost to him. The admission that Truffaut’s life has been altered by the indelible images that surround him is a gesture of profound reverence, and not of vanity. After all, one can presume that Truffaut’s beloved mentor, André Bazin, has a prominent place in his own ethereal altar of the dead. Inevitably, Julien is transfigured by the love of life, a literal moving image, a metaphor for Truffaut’s passion for the cinema. The film concludes with the lighting of the temple’s final candle, in celebration of Truffaut’s realized passion, his own liebestodic rapture.