Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Patricia Walters, Adrienne Corri, Radha, Thomas E. Breen, Arthur Shields, Suprova Mukerjee, Nora Swinburne
Director: Jean Renoir
Audio: English monaural
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, full-frame 1.33:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: Jean Renoir Introduction, Rumer Godden: An Indian Affair, Martin Scorsese interview, Ken McEldowney audio interview, stills gallery, trailer, booklet and essays
Length: 99 minutes
Release Date: March 1, 2005

"She's growing up.  We all have to, Harriet."

Film ****

For the duration of World War II, legendary French director Jean Renoir languished in a life of self-imposed exile outside of his native France.  Living in the United States, Renoir attempted to remain productive making movies but quickly became disillusioned by limitations imposed upon him in Hollywood.  Not surprisingly, Renoir's American films paled in comparison with his greatest works from the 1930's, such as Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game.  Renoir was simply too independent and iconoclastic for the inflexibility of the studio-era Hollywood.  Frustrated, after the conclusion of World War II Renoir ultimately sought inspiration outside of Hollywood, and he found it in Calcutta, India.

Describing Calcutta as the "Bronx of India," Renoir considered the city equal parts overpopulated yet fascinating.  He sensed that Calcutta would provide a rich backdrop for a film, and he already had in mind the ideal story for such a film - novelist Rumer Godden's autobiographical tale, "The River."  After his return from India, Renoir collaborated arduously with the novelist to fashion a script that would remain faithful to the spirit of Godden's novel while further infusing authentic cultural flavor into her tale.

Jean Renoir's adaptation of The River, released in 1951, would not only become Renoir's greatest critical success in many years but would also garner widespread praise for its innovative use of the Technicolor color process.  The film's meditative and experimental style also introduced many western audiences for the first time to Indian culture and music.  This soon gave rise to an international appreciation for Indian cinema that reached its greatest pinnacle in 1955 with the release of Satyajit Ray's Bengali masterpiece, Pather Panchali.  Not coincidentally, Ray had himself met with Renoir earlier during the production of The River; and the French director's influence upon the young Indian journalist had been strongly evident in Ray's own subsequent directorial debut.

In actuality, The River was quite unconventional for a Renoir film..  Missing were many of the intricate crane shots or pan shot flourishes typically seen in Renoir's earlier films.  Scenes were edited together from many very short shots instead of the long takes that Renoir usually favored.  The cast was comprised mostly of children and amateurs and had no recognizable star performer.  Even the film's script favored a stream-of-consciousness approach that was directly opposed to the narrative and plot-driven films of Hollywood.  The River significantly predated the free-form, plot-less style that was to become so highly regarded years later in Michelangelo Antonioni's L'avventura (1960).

The River can be seen as a depiction of the waning years of British colonial life in India, as experienced by a young British girl, Harriet (Patricia Walters).  The film is essentially one long flashback whose unseen narrator (June Hillman) is the grown-up version of Harriet, the film's central child character.  Harriet's nostalgic descriptions of her early childhood in Bengal, India conjure up the rose-colored images of a time long past, when her family lived along a tributary river bank of the Granges, the cradle of life and sustenance for the local villagers.

The River opens one fair autumn when the young and inquisitive Harriet espies a dashing American arriving in Bengal.  The American, a Captain John (Thomas E. Breen), is a war veteran who is now merely a lonely man, spiritually lost and searching for a meaningful existence in the aftermath of his traumatic war experiences.  Captain John has also lost a leg in combat, a romantic notion that captures the fancy of not only Harriet but also her impulsive friend Valerie (Adrienne Corri).  Captain John has come to India to visit his cousin, the widower Mr. John (Arthur Shields), who conveniently occupies the riverside manor adjacent to that belonging to Harriet's family.

Mr. John has a daughter Melanie (Radha), also one of Harriet's dear friends.  Melanie, however, is not American, like her father; she is a half-caste, caught between the traditions of her deceased Indian mother's homeland and the alien culture of her beloved father.  Melanie's inner search for self-identity in some ways reflects that of Captain John's, and perhaps this sense of kinship draws Melanie to her older, distant relative.

All three young girls will eventually vie for the affections or attention of the dashing young American soldier in their own subtle ways, yet this romantic sub-plot ultimately only provides a vague semblance of structure to the film.  In truth, The River flows freely, unencumbered from the standard conventions of plot and narrative, and like snatches of splintered memories or tender reminisces, The River drifts from scene to scene, day by day.  This unconventional structure allows Renoir to weave documentary-like images into the film, and the overall effect is sometimes dream-like and sometimes lyrical and poignant.

The river itself is in essence the true spiritual center of the film, its nurturing waters providing for all in the community, from the villagers to the foreigners and even to the majestic pipal tree that sits along its river banks.  Ever-flowing, serenely calm, this river is symbolic of the film's central theme of the continuing cycle of life and death.  All else is fleeting, but the river is itself eternal.  Harriet even observes at one point, "For Hindus, all the universe is God.  And since God is everywhere, it is only natural to worship a tree, a stone, a river."

The villagers themselves celebrate the vital role of the river in a traditional festival.  On the darkest night in October, the light of thousands of candles illuminates the village and its waters for the traditional Diwali festival of lights.  It is a commemorative ceremony for the village ancestors and the goddess Kali, whose clay idol in the morning will be set adrift in the river to return to the elements.  This ritual is yet another reflection of the endless cycle of renewal and rebirth that quietly pervades the film, a motif that is particularly true for the lives of the film's characters in their progression from childhood's end through the passage into adulthood with its inherent innocence lost.  The cycle can also be observed thematically in the film's very backdrop - the final days of British colonial life in India, with the realization, both somber and exciting, of independence looming inevitably in its future.

On one level, The River is a coming-of-age film, following the children's rites of passage as they experience the first flowering of early love.  On another level, The River is a celebration of immutable existence itself, wherein life and death and renewal are all intertwined in an commensal embrace.  While there is indeed a sorrowful death late in The River, the film's sage nature suggests that even from such a tragedy, rebirth and a re-celebration of life can begin anew.  The River's exoticism, captivating scenery, and regional music all offer an idyllic and tranquil setting for the film's exploration of the fragility of human emotions and existence.

The River signaled Renoir's return to the limelight and was easily the director's most significant cinematic achievement since The Rules of the Game.  The film garnered numerous accolades for Renoir and allowed him to return triumphantly to Europe after more than a decade of absence.  After settling once more in his native France, Renoir would embark upon the final, joyous phase of his illustrious career, a period that included the creation of his "Stage & Spectacle" trilogy (glorifying the world of the theater) and that brought Renoir long-overdue and well-deserved international appreciation for his earlier films.

As an independent production, The River has now passed somewhat into the faded annals of cinematic history, but it is a film that deserves to be cherished and not forgotten.  Certainly, Renoir never directed such a unique and bold film ever again in his career.  After suffocating under the Hollywood studio system, Renoir had found the freedom of expression in making The River in India to be one of the happiest experiences of his life.  That joy translated readily to the film, and at the very least, The River should be considered one of the final masterpieces from this legendary director.

Video ***

The River was the first Technicolor film ever shot in India.  Utilizing the famous three-strip process, Renoir and his crew were able to create images that even the Technicolor company itself considered "the best they have ever had."  The transfer for this disc was made from the original three-strip 35mm nitrate camera negatives.  Happily, the restorative work is quite exemplary, and The River looks breath-taking.  There is some mild emulsion fluctuation early, but the colors otherwise are quite solid and very vivid in the best Technicolor tradition.

Audio ***

The River was one of the first films to employ sound recorded on magnetic tape.  Furthermore, no new music was written for the film; instead, Renoir resorted to traditional Indian music that he had recorded while in Calcutta.  The result is an audio track that adds an authentic flavor to many of the film's vibrant documentary-like images.

The sound on this disc was transferred from a 35mm optical track print and restored to remove clicks, pops, and other extraneous background noise.  This audio track is presented in its original English monaural with optional English subtitles.

Features ***1/2

The features start with a brief introduction (8 min.) to The River from Jean Renoir.  The director discusses the circumstances which brought him together with florist-turned-fledgling producer Ken McEldowney for The River.  Renoir also touches briefly upon the impact that shooting the film on location in India had on his beliefs and personal life thereafter.

Other interviews on the disc include a conversation (13 min.) with director Martin Scorsese and an audio interview with producer Ken McEldowney.  Scorsese was clearly influenced by The River for his own film Kundun (1997) and, in his interview, talks enthusiastically and at great length about how the film had inspired him.

McEldowney, a true Renaissance man, was a successful florist prior to selling his shops and mortgaging his home to finance The River.  In his highly entertaining interview, he addresses some of the tremendous difficulties which arose during production and recalls many interesting anecdotes about working with Renoir and the actors.  The McEldowney interview also includes a very extensive text section highlighting the production woes, many of which were political in nature and thus beyond McEldowney's control anyway.  That McEldowney tenaciously surmounted all these obstacles to produce his first (and only) film is a testimony to his conviction and belief in the film.  This audio interview is organized into five chapters entitled Setting up The River (17 min.), Casting (9 min.), Renoir and Rumer Godden (4 min.), Location Anecdotes (10 min.), and Legacy (6 min.).

(Note - Each chapter in the McEldowney audio interview has to be listened to entirely in one sitting.  Stopping at any point will necessitate restarting from the very beginning of that audio chapter.)

Among the promotional features are the original theatrical trailer for The River and a stills gallery of production photos and publicity stills.  The gallery is divided into a "Cast & Crew" section (27 photos) and a larger "Production" section (89 photos).

Rumer Godden: An Indian Affair (59 min.) is the highlight bonus feature on the disc and practically worth the purchase price alone.  This glowing documentary, made for the BBC in 1995, lovingly traces the life of the celebrated novelist as she returns to the India of her childhood and re-visits remembered sites and memories long past.  Interspersed among the sights of India are Godden's old photographs, home videos, recitations from her novels, and even re-enactments of passages from her many stories.  The dreamy, luminous quality of the photography and editing make this documentary a true joy to experience.  Visually, it is one of the most stunningly beautiful biographical documentaries I have ever seen and, more importantly, it perfectly complements the tranquil tone of Renoir's fine adaptation of The River.

Lastly, Criterion has included a 16-page booklet with notes about the film and the transfer and general acknowledgements.  There are also two articles.  The first is "The River" by Ian Christie and discusses The River's avant-garde nature and themes in its then-current international context.  The second article, "The Making of The River" by film professor and author Alexander Sesonske, describes Renoir's long odyssey to create this independent film as well as the unconventional touches which make the film so unique in Renoir's repertoire.


The River is completely unlike any other film from the versatile French director Jean Renoir, but it remains one of his finest and most sincere achievements.  A visual tour de force and a glorious, meditative tribute to the sights and sounds of Indian culture, The River receives my top recommendation.

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