|Jean Renoir’s The River is one of the most fascinating multinational productions of its era. An independently financed American film directed by a French expatriate about British colonists shot entirely in India (then a strangely exotic and relatively unknown country in the West), The River is a sumptuous visual feast that foregoes narrative drive for the simple beauties of lived existence on the banks of the Ganges River. As the first color film of Renoir’s long career and the first Technicolor film ever shot in India, it was in many ways an experimental work, one that was constantly under threat of going terribly wrong, yet never did.|
Taking place either in the 1920s after World War I or the late 1940s after World War II, the story, which is by far the film’s weakest element, involves the coming of age of a 12-year-old British girl named Harriet, played by Patricia Walters, an amateur who never acted in a film before or since. Harriet is at the delicate cusp of adolescence; tall, gangly, and confused between her quickly dissipating childhood and the realities of adult life awaiting her, she is an awkward creature, but one who is infinitely sympathetic. She lives in India with her father (Esmond Knight), mother (Nora Swinburne), and a number of younger siblings. Harriet’s coming of age is mirrored by her next-door neighbor, Melanie (Radha), who is born of an Indian mother and a British father (Arthur Shields). Thus, not only is Melanie navigating the divide between girl and woman, but also struggling to capture her identity as an Indian.
Harriet’s world is thrown into tumult with the arrival of Captain John (Thomas E. Breen), a relative of Melanie’s family who comes to stay with them. As a handsome young man, Captain John immediately catches Harriet’s eye; even though she is too young and immature for him, she develops a crush that is constantly thwarted by her older and more alluring friend, the red-headed Valerie (Adrienne Corri). Harriet and Valerie engage in a sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit competition for Captain John’s affections, but what they don’t quite realize is how deeply damaged he is. The object of their desire is a veteran who lost his leg—and also part of his soul—in the war. A forgotten hero who couldn’t readjust to life at home, he has come to India as an escape.
The River was based on the autobiographical novel by Rumer Godden, who grew up in India and whose work also formed the basis for Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947). She and Renoir wrote the script together, something Renoir had been unable to do on the previous American films he had shot throughout the 1940s. Renoir always considered himself an “author,” rather than a “director,” and the fact that the Hollywood studios had not let him write his own scripts had long been a sore spot that some argue negatively affected his work. It is somewhat ironic, in this respect, that Renoir ended up constructing much of The River in the editing room, rather than adhering closely to the screenplay.
By the time The River was made, Renoir was on the decline in Hollywood (it would be his last American film before returning to France), thus he was unable to secure a bona-fide star, which is why it had to be independently financed (by a florist, no less). This independence turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as it allowed Renoir to work free of the constraints of the Hollywood studio system. This brought with it some problems, in that the limited budget restricted the kind of equipment Renoir could use (as a director used to constantly moving the camera, he had to make do without dolly tracks and large cranes). In addition, the largely amateur cast made the dramatic scenes more difficult, and their lack of polish shows sometimes awkwardly in the final product.
However, even with these obstacles, Renoir scored a significant triumph with The River, a film that was literally unlike anything that had been seen in Hollywood before. In a way, it was the film that truly introduced India—not the exotic, fantastical myth-land of Rudyard Kipling adventure stories, but rather a place of everyday existence—to the West, even if it was through the eyes of Western characters. Renoir shows a great deal of respect for the Indian way of life, and much of the film simply records in almost documentary-like fashion the daily routines of life along the banks of the Ganges. Had The River been made in Hollywood, much of it would have invariably been shot on soundstages, which would have been detrimental to the film’s effect. Its location work gives it a level of realism and authenticity that could not have been achieved anywhere else. Plus, Renoir’s stunning use of Technicolor, which was at the time reserved only for A-list prestige productions, needed the natural colors and textures of the authentic locations.
While the social aspects of The River certainly feel dated—Harriet’s mother telling her that having babies for the man she loves is the essence of her being a woman almost makes you wince—it has an undercurrent of emotion that still feels fresh and alive. Coming of age is a universal experience, and Renoir captures its ups and downs with a tenderness and positive outlook that many would not have thought possible from a man who was one of the cinema’s most savage social critics in the 1930s. Like the titular body of water that runs throughout the film, The River is about the ebb and flow of life—life, death, and birth are just the brief stops along the way.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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Overall Rating: (3.5)
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