But rivers are not just calm, peaceful retreats, places unaffected by the world in which they exist. Indeed, they are alive and vital, filled with the stored emotion of the millions who've passed upon and through them. Occasionally this saturation of sentiment causes an imbalance. The levels swell and the banks overflow. In that instant, nature demands respect, reclaiming some of its own sandy soul while making room for the new dreams of the subsequent generations.
Known as Santama Dharma to its faithful, the European name Hindu actually comes from the sanskrit word 'sindhu', which means 'river'. Within this religion is the notion that all rivers are deities, sacred places to be worshipped for their life-giving essence. And to the young English girls living along its banks, the massive Bengal does indeed represent a conduit to new beginnings – a caravan bringing supplies, and strangers, from afar. Yet as Jean Renoir makes clear in his full blown color masterpiece The River, this is also an exotic and forbidden path, a realm that can as easily claim a life as create or support one.
All of existence surges and fades like a subtle stream, finding its ways around life's problems and pitfalls. Sometimes, we make the journey successfully. In other instances, we succumb to the sudden shifts and feel ourselves dragged under by the force and the control of the tides. While an ocean may be an oasis, a vast expanse of water sitting idly by as tiny amounts of meaning are extracted from it, a river is far more difficult. In Renoir's view, its waters influence all life much more than the silent, sedentary sea.
When a cousin comes to visit from America, the girls are naturally intrigued. Strangers are rare in these parts, and the possibility of a new man around the property excites them. But Mr. John's relative, the amiable American Captain John, is carrying with him a heavy burden. During the war, he too was wounded, losing a leg. He believes the world pities him because of his injury and is looking to escape its harsh, intrusive eyes. India seems like as good a place as any. Little does he know he will have to contend with the local, lovesick girls. As each young lady makes a play for his affections, the day-to-day life in India continues. Festivals are held and religious ceremonies are performed. And just beyond the front gate, past the fields and over the footbridge, lies the Bengal, the river. It promises adventure as it foretells tragedy.
As much a reflection of its location as a total reinvention of it, Jean Renoir's brilliant, evocative film The River takes us to an India that only exists in the mind of its creator. Certainly, the famed director is drawing directly from the memories and the words of author Rumer Godden (who not only wrote the novel from which the movie was based, but co-authored the screenplay as well), and by filming completely on location, along the Bengal countryside, he is using all the local color to his distinct advantage. But Renoir was naturally a painter at heart, and for this, his first film in Technicolor, the canvas he creates is both artificial and awe-inspiring. While it may not be completely faithful to the culture or the customs of the Indian people, there is no doubt about its cinematic facets. The River is a sumptuous visual feast, yet another example (following Grand Illusion, The Rules of the Game and The Lowers Depths) of Renoir's amazing ability at using his camera as a paintbrush.
Drawing directly on the Hindu belief in reincarnation and the near universal concept of an endless circle of life, The River is a meditation on the varying phases of maturity, from youthful curiosity to somber, settled middle age. From the devastation of death to the miracle of birth, the pain of love to the ache of pride, it's as human a film as Renoir has ever made. Though the setting adds a certain sense of spice and occasionally threatens to overwhelm the film with its fragrant, heady imagery, it's the lives of the people he depicts that Renoir is really interested in. For all the pretty pomp and plaintive circumstances, The River is really just a coming of age tale, the standard lament about learning who you are and of your place in the order of things. Of course, in the hands of a master craftsman, a filmic artist of such substantial skill that even today his movies feel decades ahead of their time, there is nothing usual or ordinary about this introduction to adulthood.
Certainly, the director is rightly fascinated by the completely foreign facets of a pre-Independent India. Though it was made in '51, four years after the nation was released from British colony control, there is a definite 'empire' aura to the time and place presented (the flashback narration by actress June Hillman actually gives it away). Renoir wants to both examine and exploit this ideal, to give us the grandeur of an exotic locale along with the pragmatic features of its day-to-day life. Using an incredibly unique mise-en-scene, the director intuitively starts every scene on something small – a single merchant in a roadside shop, one boat backed by a massive, swollen river. Then, as his camera tracks back, more details are revealed. The frame starts to fill with additional peddlers, many more vessels. Before you know it, the smallness of the initial shot is now part of an amazing anarchy of visual wonder. India is, first and foremost, a nation of PEOPLE, and Renoir loads his compositions with bodies in motion, individuals constantly moving and making their way through the paces and places of their perpetual existence.
Even in the celebrations, moments when the Indian people stop and pay homage to their gods and many blessings, Renoir keeps the frame populated. He inherently understands the need for a crowd, the importance of making the spectacle and the pageantry connect directly with the people it serves. When he does decide to focus on a single individual, or a tableau of three or four, the juxtaposition is striking, and very telling. Constantly bringing us back to the basics, to remind us that this is a film about how insignificant we often feel in the face of such behemoth conceits like life and love, Renoir uses these important solo moments in The River to accentuate his emotional connection to the characters. It is almost as if he is daring us to stop and look as well, to drink in what he brings to the frame and figure out for ourselves what is so fascinating to him.
When Melanie does a wedding dance (as part of a stunning dream sequence that leaves one speechless with its use of color and composition), Renoir hold the camera in a medium-long shot, allowing the actress/dancer's entire body to bend and sway along the static backdrop of a wooden wall. As she gracefully glides from one amazing movement to the next, Renoir keeps his camera locked, allowing the celebration and expression of the choreography to speak for themselves. He does this at other times in The River, letting a close-up appear to be held for just a beat too long, or quickly inserting a dissolve that seems to cut a sequence short. Both add emphasis and power to the sentiments expressed therein. These purposeful punctuations, these cinematic exclamation points may seem intrusive to audiences used to a less stylized or formalized concept of filmmaking. But this is Renoir's story just as much as it is the characters, and he never wants you to forget whose in charge, or what's important to him.
As a director, Renoir was always concerned with making sure his films resonated with people on a personal, private level. For all the flamboyance and backstage bravado of The Golden Coach, the show stopping spectacle of French Can-Can, or the posh party scene slapstick of The Rules of the Game, he was a filmmaker infatuated with the human condition. Indeed, some of his more stunning visual work - the ghetto locations of The Lower Depths, the magnificent manors of Elena and Her Men - belie the truth about the individuals who exist within their optical wonders. India plays a similar part in The River as well. In Renoir's world, the foreign or alien is equated with the emotional; that place in the soul that so many of us dare not visit or fail to fully realize exist. Like the concept of secrets, which also plays a part in the director's thematic goals here, this old world nation with its customs and peculiarities is an undiscovered world just begging to be investigated. With his camera and his characters, Renoir is determined to get to the heart of this private place, to discover the truth inside each and every one of them, and as a result, inside all of us.
When it comes right down to it, The River revels in the veiled and the secret. Almost everyone in the film has something they want to hide. It's suggested from the very beginning as the reason why people come to such a foreign arena in the first place. Escape and concealment are how we handle most problems, and in Renoir's languid landscape, India and its mighty river represents the ultimate emotional getaway. For someone like Captain John, this third world retreat is a way of avoiding the pity of people who can only associate his value with his war wound. For the girls of the big house, it's the longing of a lonely heart. For the servants and those who work for the British families, it's the shame of subjugation, the knowledge that they have turned their back on their heritage and birthright for a chance to be part of those in power. And for someone like Melanie, a beautiful young girl of mixed ethnicity, it is the feeling of being out of place, of not knowing where you belong, or to which culture you wish to remain loyal.
Yet defining the film down a few steps further, it is clear that both Renoir and Godden wanted to use The River as a triptych to certain character types, using the trio of young girls to present the entire perspective on what it is to be young, female and in love. Harriett is the hopelessly devoted romantic, the puppy love feeling fool who sees Captain Jack and immediately makes him the center of her immature emotional universe. She is young love, obsessive affection without rhyme or reason. There is a purity and a passion inside her that's hard to deny. It even fuels her growing muse (she writes poetry and stories based on her mixed emotions) and causes her to dive deeper and further within herself. She visualizes perfect romance and star-crossed caring (it is her idealistic thoughts that form the basis of the marriage dream sequence), knowing that if the Captain would just reciprocate, everything would be right with the world. But it is also petty and misplaced, a sense of sentiment that is born more out of a desire to be appreciated and protected than any real ardor. Even the object of her desires keeps her locked in her unhappy place. Instead of acknowledging her budding and desperate to bloom sexuality, Captain Jack calls her "Harry", removing all doubts of his physical attraction or attention.
Then there is Valerie, the next phase in the evolving love landscape. Trapped between the final steps that seem to press on Melanie and the adolescent realm where Harriet unhappily dwells, Valerie wants to be as fiery and as fierce as the mane of red hair that frames her fragile, overly youthful face. Indeed, those delicate features continually give her away. There is a magnificent moment in The River, a time where Renoir lets this character finally cross over into the full-blown adulthood she is so desperate to be part of. Having flirted and feigned interest, attracted and repelled the man she's perusing, Valerie and Captain Jack finally share a kiss in a mangrove. But instead of being filled with lust and fervor, our still too young lover shudders and crumbles under the consideration of what crossing this threshold really means. She always had it worked out in her head – the proper reaction, where such a physical expression of emotion would lead next. But the culmination of all those innocent desires is so overwhelming that she can't help but cry. They're not tears of joy, or sorrow. Their tears of resolve, knowledge that there is still some growing up to do before such a situation will ever seem right.
And then there's Melanie, the very definition of eventual adulthood. Uncomfortable with herself, unable to recognize the place time has taken her to, and unsure if she will ever fit in, there is a rationality and an absurdity to the way she acts, a little girl lost mentality trapped in an educated and experienced persona. Partly because of her diverse heritage, mostly because of how she was raised (born in India, but shipped off to British boarding schools to be reared), there is a burning conflict inside her, a draining dichotomy that seems to pain her every waking moment. She is in love with Captain Jack, but sees through him. She realizes her infatuation and fights it, trying not to let it consume her soul. Then there is Anil, the boy who has long wished to marry her. Portrayed as a stunning vision of Krishna by Harriet in her dream story, Melanie can see through him as well. She understands that the romanticized image actually contains a man, a human being who will eventually fall off of his god-like pedestal and have real human emotions to contend with. It is interesting that, at the start of the film, Melanie seems to be the character most easily envisioned as engaged or married by the end. It is to Renoir's credit that the only time we see such a sanctification of what is really a complex consideration is in a full-blown fantasy.
As he does with most of his movies, Renoir makes love and longing the catalyst of his situations. He uses it as a foundation for all the relationships (just like in life, actually), the support for the family, the connection between siblings and friends. Emotion is what initially draws the girls to Captain John. The clarification of such feelings is what will divide them, and eventually brings them back together. These interconnections are crucial to Renoir, for just like the titular tributary, feelings are a river that winds around and in between people, separating and strengthening us as it constantly flows. As a filmmaker with his fundamentals in the visual, Renoir gives us glorious shots of the water in motion, the sun dappling across the barely breaking ripples of the surface. One of the most outstanding sequences is a description of the steps that lead to the Bengal, a sort of substitute pier system which illustrates how interlinked the waterway is to the daily life of the Indian people.
But more than just a stunning survey of magnificent imagery and ideas, Renoir is a master of the dramatic and human dynamic, and The River vibrates with a careful consideration to plot structure and storytelling. While fate seems to play the biggest part here, the karmic conceit that controls most of the machinations that surround the people and places here, Renoir never lets us forget that this story is also a memoir, a recollection from a writer illustrated with the classic aspects of tragedy and romance. Godden's work is reminiscent of other sprawling family epics like The Little Foxes, Gone with the Wind, or The Magnificent Ambersons. But instead of linking her narrative to a bigger, broader event (like, say, the Civil War), the author avoids the situational set piece to keep the story grounded in the individual scope of the circumstance. To her – and to Renoir – the personal is as powerful, or more so, than the evocative locale or the strange customs and rituals. It would be easy to envision The River as some manner of Merchant/Ivory period piece, with bodices and bowlers taking the place of sunny summer dresses and sumptuous silk saris.
But Renoir makes sure that India is a character in this film as well, a place where people come to be swept away by its ambience and aura. Indeed, removed from this alien environment, The River would be nothing more than a mainstream melodrama with a bunch of bickering girls all longing for the lover who won't allow them inside. But with Bengal and lush landscape for backdrops, with the bazaars and jute manufacturing plants as sets, and the fertile, verdant greenery filling in every available space, Renoir gives this movie its character and its core.
The acting here is exceptional, especially when considering that many in the cast are amateurs. Radha, who plays Melanie, was a dancer by training, offered the role of the bi-racial teen because of her detached mannerism and amazing movement skills. Thomas Breen, who played Captain John, was also far from a famous face. He may have made a few minor films, but found himself cast in The River because of his similarity to the character he played: he too lost a leg during WWII. While the rest of the company was more than capable (most were noted British stage and screen actors) it's the occasional untried talent, and the flourish of freshness they bring to the story, that makes The River so magnificent.
Renoir's directorial genius, his classic combination of style AND substance, both living in expert harmony, also help to make The River so monumental, and so moving. Like Hitchcock, who used his camera and his shot selection to emphasize and highlight certain statements and situations, only to have them pay off beautifully later on, Renoir consistently lets us know when to pay attention in his narrative, and when we can sit back and simply take in the view. And it is a marvelous, awe-inspiring sight. Few filmmakers captured the rich colors of the world better than Renoir. Maybe without his famed father for inspiration, he would still have a miraculous way with pigment and tone. But it is precisely because of his past, as well as his knowledge of cinema from the inside out, that causes this amazing auteur to craft such unforgettable films. Stunning to behold, brilliant in its visual and narrative control, The River continues to prove that there was no more immense a talent than Jean Renoir. Like the long, languid body of water he champions here, the director is the bringer of life. Everything about this film's existence is filtered through and directly tied to him. And he responds with a masterpiece. The River is a great, great film.
Film preservationist, and a high-powered director in his own right, Martin Scorsese, offers his own take on the film in a nicely nuanced near 20-minute missive on Renoir and The River. Recalling how blown away he was the first time he saw the movie (during its first run, at age nine), Scorsese fills in some of the production blanks (how Renoir got the film financed, the process of casting the characters) while giving his own insight into the themes and importance of the narrative. Also on hand to add his recollections, albeit from an audio attribute only, is one-time florist and real estate agent, producer Ken McEldowney. Having always wanted to make a color film in India, McEldowney discusses how he came to the project, his involvement with Renoir, and even shares a few anecdotes about the production. Personable, and filled with facts, the producer provides a great deal of insight into how The River made the transition from novel to film.
But perhaps the best added feature, aside from the gorgeous gallery of production stills and the excellent as always essays enclosed with the disc, is the 1995 BBC documentary Rumer Godden: An Indian Affair. At nearly an hour, we follow the author as she returns to the India of her birth and revisits many of the spots that inspired her work – especially The River. Old and very frail, but also full of the spirit that fueled her writing, this trip back for Godden, traveling with her adult daughter, makes for a sensational supplement to the film proper. Presented in a 1.66:1 non-anamorphic widescreen image, this is a strikingly beautiful exposé, combining amazing visuals from modern India, archival footage and family photos as well as the occasional invocation of Godden's literary imagery. Front and center though is Godden, her face still capable of capturing the magic and mysticism of the land she once loved so dearly (sadly, she passed away in 1998 at age 90).
Though he would go on to make at least two more fantastic films in his career, The River can be looked upon as Renoir's real swansong. It is his first film in color and undoubtedly his finest. While it represents a period of time when he was still struggling under the stifling hand of Hollywood, it also shows what a master craftsman he could be, even inside such a hollow happenstance. The Golden Coach, French Can-Can and Elena and Her Men would follow, but they were films of France, paeans to his homeland with hopes they would allow him to reconnect with his countrymen. However The River is different. It celebrates what is perhaps the two best facets of Renoir's filmmaking – his humanism and his eye. Both are in fine form in this masterpiece of a movie. It should not be missed, but sampled and relished for years to come. Just like the mighty rivers it so sensationally celebrates, it too is timeless.