Review by Ed Nguyen
Patricia Walters, Adrienne Corri, Radha, Thomas E. Breen, Arthur Shields,
Suprova Mukerjee, Nora Swinburne
Director: Jean Renoir
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Full Frame 1.33:1
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: April 21, 2015
growing up. We all have to, Harriet."
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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."
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.).
- 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
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).
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.
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.