Film Review: "The River," by Jean Renoir


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"The River" (1951) is one of my all time favorite films. I saw bits of it several times on the late late show in my younger days. It always struck me as a "neat film" but I could never find out the title or see the whole thing. Recently I found it. I give it 5 starts on my netflix rating and I only give 5 starts to my absolute favorites such Bergman's "The Seventh Seal." "The River" is a strange film directed by Jean Renoir, one of the truly great directors, best known for the film classic, "the Rules of The Game," (19390 (Roger Ebert's Review), and the equally famous "Grand Illusion" (1937) (Renoir was the son of the famous Painter). The first time I saw the river I had no idea who made it. I came to respect Renoir, years before I  knew about the River. Probably his most famous works are Rules of the Game, and Grand Illusion both "must sees" for anyone who pretends to a good knowledge of film as an art form. These were made in the 1930s when Renoir was at the top of his game, one of the true  greats of cinema in Europe. The River, on the other hand, was made in 1950 released in 1951. By this time Renoir had been ruined in Hollywood and was no longer commercially viable as a director. He was searching for a story that would put him over again. He found a review of the novel The River by Rumer Godden whose major work is probalby Black Narcissus.The River is a true story, the story of  Godden growing up in Bengal.

Renoir bought the rights to the novel but had no money. No famous American actor would do it. No one wanted to shoot in India, technicolor had never been used in India. This was the first color film made in India it almost didn't get made due to the limitation on shooting in color in a  place with no real film making infrastructure set up to deal with technicolor. Yet the film turned out to be called one of the greatest uses of color in all of film history, on a par with The Red Shoesfor its use of color. It's also Renoir's first color film. He just happened to connect with a Florist who wanted to make a movie in India and was interested in that story. The producer knew nothing of film making but had the money and did not have the rights to the film he wanted to do. Renoir had the knowledge and the film rights. They got together.

It's a female coming of age myth, but it transcends that. It's about a girl growing up and experiencing her first crush, unrequited of course, which catapults her out of childhood and gives her her first taste of being an adult. It's a love triangle with four parts, does "love rectangle" make sense? Three young girls are in love with a soldier who comes to India from the war, having lost his leg, to live with his cousin because he's alienated form his native America. The Cousin is Scottish as are the other two families. As the narrator (the adult voice of the youngest girl of the triangle, Harriet) says, "in the war he was a hero, after the war is forgotten he's just a man with one leg." The Cousin is the father of one of the girls who vies for his attention (Melanie played by professional Indian dancer Radha). She's not really as serious as the other two (he is her cousin). The other two are Valerie (Adrienne Corri), the oldest (16) and most well developed who is now a young woman and very beautiful with flaming red hair, and the youngest (14) Harriet ("Harry") (Patricia Walters). Harriet's family lives in India in order to manage a jute factory. Jute is a fibrous plant made into rope and also paper. The two neighbor girls belong to families that are also involved in Jute production and all three families are wealthy the standards of the community, although not extravagantly so.

PhotobucketPatricia Walters as Harriet

The film is a strange thing, it seems almost home made. It has a very innocent quality and strikes one as almost childish. The romantic crushes of adolescent girls sounds like a trivial subject matter. Despite the fact that it's like watching home movies or sort of like a Disney classic from the 60s, at the same time it strikes one as extremely profound. One expects to see Brian Keit, Maureen O'Hara, and Haily Mills playing twins. Yet, at the same time one feels that this is a great film, we are watching something closer to Bergman's The Virgin Spring unfolding.  What follows will include spoilers so if you want to be surprised by your films, stop reading, go get the River because you will love it.

The three girls are immediately enchanted with the visiting Captain John. Thomas E. Breen who plays the part was a real war hero and like the character he plays did lose his leg. One of the remarkable things about this film is the mixture of non professional actors with professional actors. Only three members of the cast were real actors but thy all blend perfectly. Mr. John is the neighbor, his daughter is Melanie,  the product of an English-Indian Marriage. She has been away at school in England and just returned. She is struggling to understand her identity, is she Indian or English? The two "men" (boys) in her life, both of whom are love interests for her, symbolize her two heritages. She has an Indian boy friend with a long time understanding about being married at some point. She also is fascinated with the new stranger. She has the least chance of getting Captain John. She is featured in an interlude that illustrates a story the major character Harriet is writing, about "The Lord Krishna." In that story within the story Radha does a traditional Indian wedding dance and film buffs will appreciate the technique becuase they didn't have a means of moving the camera close for tight shots so the actress has to dance close to the camera and then back up again, yet somehow it works.

On the Eve of the Hindu version of Chrstmas, a harvest festival called Duwali, the festival of lights, there's a children's party, a scene between Captain John and Valarie where they establish their mutual attraction. He goes into the relationship in a more deeply romantic way with her, the other two girls are just sort of trying in vain to catch up. Valarie is a tease and loves to be cruel. She betrays Harriet and reads her secret diary to the Captain who is angered and refuses to play with her. They play a sort of ring-toss game and Valarie causes him to fall down and damage his prosthetic leg. After this the Captain is going away so the girls are trying to get his attention and keep him there. Harriet tries to win his favor by shewing him her creative side, she reads poetry to him that she wrote herself.

In the midst of this adolescent crisis Harriet sort of half notices that her little bother "Bogie" keeps trying to catch a cobra. There's some obvious foreshadowing and she finds the child dead in the bushes. Harriet did try to reprimand him for playing with then snake but didn't really stop to make sure that he did, owning to her romantic brooding. Thus she feels guilty for her brother's death. She takes a boat out on the river in the middle of the night and jumps into the current to allow herself to be dawned. But the local fisher boys recognize her as one of the English girls and they know she can't cope with the river alone so they follower her in their boat and fish her out before she can drown. They get word to the house and it's captain John who came to take her home. He has come to accept his lost-leg by this point and they have a touching scene and share some talk about facing life, learning to live with one's mistakes. Of course he tells her it wasn't her fault that her brother died.

By the end of the film the Captain has moved on but he's not wondering the world in alienation. The three girls in the final scene are waiting to learn if Harriet's mother gave birth to a boy or a girl, they are reading a letter form the captain but it matters so little they just let it blow away and run to see how the birth went. They find she had another girl and they all laugh with the father, who then goes to see the mother and the three girls stay outside talking about their plans for the future. When one begins unraveling the archetypes it becomes clear that this is a great film, it's a tapestry of universal concerns, a view of life tinged with the wisdom traditions of all ancinet cultures. The film as a whole is set to a sort of timing that fits with the river motif. The river of course is a metaphor for the passage of time and of life. The life of the people who live along its banks becomes a metaphor for all people everywhere involved in the business of living in this brief span of mortal days, symbolized by the many steps which are pointed out by the narrator, hundreds of pairs of steps every few hundred hard leading down into the river from temples and houses and whatever. The films preserves that these timing, slow stead flow, universal and timeless yet caught up in the concrete moment. Just we are watching an adolescent drama, a slice of life, a families daily grind and trivial concerns, yet all of it pointing toward the universality of human experience. The use of color is one of the motifs. The color red is used in this Southern Indian culture of Bengal where they paint themselves red as a sign spring, the blow a red dying spice around on each other. The color bright orange red, (Cadmium red light) shows in clothes, blossoms on a tree, perhaps linking to this more dark red spring color.

There is a motif of things almost crashing into other things. In the opening segment there is an extremely near collision between two boats. We this on the river many times. There's a scene the first time we see the father (Harriet's father) he is almost ran over by a huge pile of Jute moving on a cart but just barely misses him. He also walks though the bazaar and has a dozen near misses with  people, cows, carts. This near miss thing fits with the timing of the river. It gives the sense of the flow of the river and if one is in sink with the river the timing is right and there is no collision. Harriet is almost run over by a cart and the men have to stop it to keep from hitting her, she's not in sink, she's in the very act of chasing after the Captain when it happens. There is a poem Rumer Godden wrote as a child which is repeated two or three times that binds up the river with life and time.There is a use of maxims and such lines throughout the film. One-liners aimed at dispensing Indian wisdom in a single shot. At the little Duwali party the mother says she feels guilty for spending her money on making paly fairy crowns for the kids, she should be getting them sox. The Captain says "so many children have sox, so few have crowns." The Captain is angry about his handicap and is saying "I want to be a normal man." Melanie says, in her true Indian accept which sounds almost German in a way, "den you must vind a country of one legged men." This hodgepodge of seeming  homespun innocents (which is actually a masterful professional  treatment by one of the great filmmakers) and the universal profundity of  India, adolescent pining, life an death and birth (the films ends with a birth) the timeless nature of the recurring cycles of nature, rebirth, somehow it all comes together in this amazing synthesis. It's like watching the original Parent Trap discovering it's really The Seventh Seal in disguise.

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Radha as Melanie

Cast

Complete credited cast:
Nora Swinburne Nora Swinburne ...
The Mother
Esmond Knight Esmond Knight ...
The Father
Arthur Shields Arthur Shields ...
Mr. John
Suprova Mukerjee Suprova Mukerjee ...
Nan
Thomas E. Breen Thomas E. Breen ...
Capt. John
Patricia Walters Patricia Walters ...
Harriet
Radha Radha ...
Melanie
Adrienne Corri Adrienne Corri ...
Valerie
June Hillman June Hillman ...
Narration (voice)

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