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Grade: BRiver, The (1951)

Director: Jean Renoir

Stars: Patricia Walters, Arthur Shields

Release Company: The Criterion Collection

MPAA Rating: NR

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Jean Renoir: The River


The Ganges River in Varanasi, India
The Ganges River in Varanasi, India Photographic Print
Pederson, Dee Ann
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Jean Renoir's first Technicolor film will never receive the astounding critical acclaims of his best work (La Grande Illusion and Rules of the Game), yet The River (Le Fleuve) is more accessible than most of his work, and it remains as visually sensuous as any of his canon. Based on Rumer Godden's novel about English colonialists in India, it's a film that almost never was made. Despite his fame and success, Renoir initially couldn't find a producer willing to risk money on any Indian film that didn't emphasize action and tigers—especially since the director insisted on location shooting. But fate kindly stepped in when businessman Kenneth McEldowney independently decided to finance a film on the book, only to discover that Renoir held the rights. It would be the only film that McEldowney ever produced.

The 1951 film played with some critical success but has been dwarfed over the years by Renoir's earlier films and even by the French comedies he created in the 1950s. Fortunately, The Criterion Collection has preserved this neglected gem with a pristine copy on a relatively bare-bones DVD that does contain a lively and insightful introduction by the director, an audio interview with the producer, and brief tribute by director Martin Scorsese.

Essentially a coming of age story about the adolescent narrator, Harriet (Patricia Walters) fantasizes and writes poetry in her diary about her life in Bengal, very close to one of its holy rivers. Her father manages the local jute factory (jute is a staple plant of India—source of fiber that ranks second only to cotton in its flexibility and amount raised), and her family lives a comfortable and relaxed lifestyle in their villa. Awkward and relatively shy, Harriet contrasts with her spirited and superstitious governess governess, Nan (Suprova Mukerjee) and her supremely confident best friend Valerie (Adrienne Corri).

Adolescence has always treads a rough path, so Harriet's lack of confidence really exhibits itself when Captain John (Thomas E. Breen), a disabled war veteran, arrives to visit their next door neighbor Mr. John (Arthur Shields). Imagine young teenage girls cooped up with no potential male love interests for years, and you immediately understand the inevitable conflict that will evolve between Harriet and her attractive friend Valerie. Sure enough, the hormones kick in and instant infatuation ensues with predictable results.

Complicating matters is the arrival of Mr. John's daughter Melanie (Radha) from a British school. A beautiful Anglo-Hindi, Melanie stands between cultures but has returned to become closer to her Indian roots, only to find herself torn between a young Indian who has assumed that he would one day be her chosen husband and this new red-headed American captain. She never overtly makes a flirtatious play for Captain John like her Anglo cohorts, yet her unspoken infatuation is also obvious.

The simple story only serves as a framework for Renoir's greater purpose—to capture the rhythms and colors of Indian life to preserve the essential spirit of the locale. Some have criticized the film for presenting a "colonial outlook," but that merely overlooks the source material that Renoir works with—Godden grew from a colonial background, but she also grew to appreciate Indian culture and values as well. Renoir does exactly the same in this slow moving film that meanders through the narrative as gently as the river itself that is a continual reminder of the Indian life cycle (birth, death, rebirth). Renoir took up residence in India and found the people's characters were very much like the common people of France in their basic values—not surprisingly, a theme that he incorporates if most of his films. I was especially pleased to find Renoir educating the audience about an often misunderstood concept—that Hindus also revere "one God" the same as the more commonly recognized mono-theistic religions.

When Renoir first discussed terms with the producer, he informed him that he would only be interested in filming on location in Bengal, where the actual novel is set; otherwise, he saw no reason to even make the film. And this is plainly seen throughout, as Renoir's artistic eye continually seeks slices of Indian life, shot with natural lighting as much as possible, and using a number of locals with a handful of professional actors to fashion a "neo-Indian" film. Also evident are touches that reflect his famous father's impressionistic style—not the nap time with the montage of sleeping family members. Their sleeping positions and settings could be individually framed and placed in an art museum alongside the works of Auguste Renoir without jarring the visual poetry of his paintings.

If someone wants an accurate view of Indian life, the best cinematic visions have been captured by Satyajit Ray, but Jean Renoir has preserved the spirit of Mother India as well as any western filmmaker and made a much more palatable film about the rhythms of life than the esoteric Siddhartha. Renoir's The River stands as a simple film that indelibly imprints images of India on the audience—the Hindu festival of lights, Hindu dancing, a cobra in the pipal tree, the rich brown river. Not as profound as his earlier work, yet unshakably memorable and intensely human and real.

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