Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Dreaming in Technicolor. For more information on this TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Martin Scorsese has called The River one of the most beautiful color films ever made and has stated that he screens the film at least once a year. The film is a miracle that was made as a result of a miracle. By 1951, the career of the great French director Jean Renoir (son of the Impressionist painter Pierre Renoir) was thought to be over. After directing some of the greatest films of the 1930’s with Grand Illusion, La Bete Human and The Rules of the Game, he fled to America at the start of World War II where he directed seven films and only one of them, The Southerner, was up to his usual standards. It would have been a good run, considering he’d been directing since 1924, but Renoir refused to give up. After reading a book review of Rumer Godden’s The River he decided he had to read it and after reading the book he decided he had to film it. After optioning and writing up a treatment, he shopped it around to various American studios who all declined because it was a story about India without the stereotypes normally associated with the country and American studios felt that without them the film would be unmarketable and also because Renoir was attached and at this point he couldn’t beg for a job in Hollywood. Undaunted, his search led him to Kenneth McEldowney, an American war vet who longed to be a movie producer and make a film about India, having spent time there during the war and fell in love with the country. McEldowney had made contacts who said that if he ever wanted to produce a film in and about India, they would put up the money. He, by happenstance, was on a plane seated next to someone who knew of Godden’s book and when McEldowney tried to option it, he found Renoir already had, putting them together on the path to making The River.
The River is also Renoir’s first use of color, though as he was the son of an Impressionist master, color was not something that was elusive to him as it was to other directors first using the technique.
The story is very loose and centers on an English family living in Bengal, India near the banks of the Ganges (though the river is never named, simply described as ‘one of the many holy rivers’) and in particular the tales of Harriet (Patricia Walters onscreen, with an older version of herself narrating played by June Hillman), a young girl in her early teenage years. The family consists of Father (Esmund Knight), Mother (Nora Swinburne), Valerie (Adrienne Corri), twin girls, one small brother and another young girl (with Mother pregnant with another child), and their nanny of sorts Nan (Suprova Mukerjee). Sharing a garden wall with them (in what is referred to as ‘The Small House’) is Mr. John (Arthur Shields) who married an Indian woman who has died by the time the story takes pace, but they had a daughter, Melanie (Radha) who is a year older than Harriet and Harriet’s best friend who has just returned home from an English boarding school. There is excitement when Capt. John, Mr. John’s young cousin, comes to visit from America. Valerie and Harriet fall in love with him almost immediately.
After watching this film, coupled with viewings of the work of Satyjit Ray, you could almost believe you’ve been to India.
John is traveling due to a restlessness caused by the loss of his right leg in ‘the war’ (though what war is not stated, it was definitely pre-WWII because the film is clearly set in Colonial India before they declared independence from Great Brittan) and his feeling out of place draws him to Melanie, a young woman born of two worlds who herself does not know quite where she belongs.
This story is merely a string to hold together these characters’ interactions with Indian culture and the surroundings. There are many explanations by the narrator as to the customs and festivals that are shown to us the story is an excuse to expose the Western world to the beauties and mysteries of India in a way that had never been done before and arguably since. More story was originally included in the film, but test audiences reacted negatively to the film in that form. Renoir continued to cut down the story and insert his landscapes and stock footage he shot to round out the film until he deconstructed the narrative completely and made it more free-flowing. The love story is there, but it’s ultimately unimportant to the film. We get to see Harriet grow up a bit and start to mature as a woman and a writer (she is the surrogate for Godden) but really the film is about India from a Western perspective. This deconstruction of plot, as noted by Alexander Sesonske in his 1989 essay on the film, is a forerunner to what Antonioni was praised for ten years later in L’avventura.
This loose thread of plot allowed Renoir to deviate into Harriet’s Krishna story and show us the beauty in Indian ritual while rooting the film in the story of this family and avoiding turning the film into an informative travelogue of India, however interesting that may be it would not have been involving.
The River is also Renoir’s first use of color, though as he was the son of an Impressionist master, color was not something that was elusive to him as it was to other directors first using the technique. He and his nephew/Director of Photography Claude Renoir paint the screen with lavish colors, taking extra steps to avoid dampening the colors presented, they also avoided any garish or over-emphasized colors. Gone were the days of three-strip Technicolor, so the film could reproduce more vibrant colors without looking faked or even colored in like was occasionally done in the early days of color filmmaking. What results is a living film, replete with authentic visuals that truly capture the look and feeling of India. After watching this film, coupled with viewings of the work of Satyjit Ray, you could almost believe you’ve been to India.
The River kicked off what was to be the final leg of Renoir’s long and fruitful career, ending with his final feature, The Elusive Corporal in 1962. Originally drawn to the story in Godden’s book but later driven for a love of India and a want to depict it as faithfully as he could, he produced what would be his final masterpiece and one of the most beautiful films ever made. He showed his true artistry and his great resolve in seeing this picture through to what it became and for that we should always be grateful to him.
The River kicked off what was to be the final leg of Renoir’s long and fruitful career, ending with his final feature, The Elusive Corporal in 1962. Originally drawn to the story in Godden’s book but later driven for a love of India and a want to depict it as faithfully as he could, he produced what would be his final masterpiece and one of the most beautiful films ever made.