By: Denis Blot
Jean Renoir’s The River is littered with the touches that stylistically made his Rules of the Game and The Grand Illusion the masterpieces that they were, albeit lacking the controversy of the two. The film has several narrative threads that combined give a gripping portrayal of a girl growing into womanhood, in the mysterious (at least to non-indigenous viewers) country of India. While Renoir’s brilliant choices of camera placement and framing adds touches of excitement to a story script that might in a lesser director’s hand become quite bland, it is the cutaways away from the central storyline that are the most beautiful and poignant. The scenes of the Ganges flowing, evokes the touches of the river movement captured in his A Day in the Country, and the shots of the fisherman, dock workers, and other culturally significant images of India read more as a well crafted documentary film than that of fiction. Its perhaps the seamless meshing of the these two stylistic elements that best illustrate Renoir’s visual talent.
The Technicolor images of India appear both vibrant and intoxicating, providing a much-needed air of otherworldliness to contrast with the British family the film focuses upon. The clashing of Indian and British cultures is also represented in the secondary character of Melanie (Radha). As a half Indian/half British young woman, Melanie must struggle, culturally speaking, with understanding who she is. There is also the internal emotional turmoil of Captain John (Thomas E. Breen), a World War Two vet, suffering from an amputated leg and the feeling that there is no place in the world for him. Harriet (Patricia Walters), the main character, herself suffers as she deals with the complicated dynamics of adolescence and her love for Captain John. It is undoubtedly the complexities of these characters, found in Rumer Godden’s novel, which tantalized Renoir’s filmmaking sensibilities.
There is an abundance of extras with this DVD; an introduction to the film by Jean Renoir, an hour long documentary on Rumer Godden’s life in India, an audio discussion with the film’s producer Ken McEldowney, and Martin Scorsese sharing his personal attachment to the film. The introduction by Renoir is a discussion of his interest in the film project and how it came about. While it is brief, it’s a pleasure to simply see the film master speak his own thoughts. The hour long documentary on author Rumer Godden would certainly have a great appeal to anyone who has read her work. It also has value in relation to the film version of her novel The River in the realization of some of the autobiographical references present in the film. The audio discussion with the film’s producer is a fascinating account of the difficulties in the making of the film, bringing up such aspects as; obtaining permission to shoot in India, his relationship to Renoir, and Renoir’s interaction with Godden in writing the screenplay. It is a bit difficult to stay focused on simply listening to the audio, and criterion would have been wise to use some of the production photos (which is a separate DVD extra) to accompany the audio, but worthwhile to put the effort in. Scorsese’s commentary on his childhood attachment to the film demonstrates his amazing gift for remembering the visual, though mostly every Scorsese fan already knows that.
The River is certainly a film that all Renoir fans should view, if only to observe its stylistic beauty and color palette. It is also a great family movie (although it does contain a bit of tragedy), and a great way to introduce a youngster to a representation of good cinema. Rent this film.