Jean Renoir (1894-1979), the son of the famous impressionist painter, is commonly referred to as a major filmmaker in history, but his films, strangely enough, rarely figure prominently in retrospectives or the era of Internet film discussions. Part of that may be attributed to the fact that his directorial style is gentle and restrained. He is no volatile Eisenstein or iconoclastic Godard or perplexing Bresson. In one of the better entries of his Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson writes: Renoir “liked simple incidents and their fusion with popular theatre and never chose to go beyond elementary narrative forms. . . . What produced the glorious tension of his films was the naturalism of the cinematography, so that during the 1930s there is not an adventure in natural light, camera movement, depth of focus, real location, or the blending of interior and exterior that Renoir did not make.”
Renoir made a profound impression on many critics and filmmakers of his day and according to Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray, “on the very day the Germans had marched into Paris, Renoir had marched out, taking with him his wife, and just such of his worldly belongings as could be got into one small suitcase.” Renoir then worked in Hollywood with mixed artistic results but returned to France in the ’50s.
Just before he returned, however, he made a transitional film, one of the first movies ever shot on Technicolor in India, The River (1951), recently released on DVD by the Criterion Collection. It was based on Rumer Godden’s novel of the same name (she had earlier written the source novel for Powell and Pressburger’s classic film, Black Narcissus) and it was filmed in Bengal “where the story really happened,” the narrator (a woman remembering her adolescence) informs us. The setting, “one of the many holy rivers,” becomes primary in the film and serves as a constant reminder of the flow of life; birth, death, and the passage of time. Renoir’s film was in some ways devised as a cinematic introduction to India for Westerners and stresses the country’s mid-century cultural and spiritual life.
While the film’s point of view is decidedly colonial and the central characters are a British family of jute merchants, it conveys an undeniable sensitivity to the sights and sounds of India through its constant focus on celebrations and customs. It’s a story of “first love.” Three girls, an adolescent (Harriet) and her two teenaged friends (Valerie and Melanie, who is half-British and half-Indian), find themselves romantically attracted to a visiting American (Captain John) who was wounded in the war. The story considers the leisurely ebbs and flows of the various relationships as the girls process their feelings and enter a new emotional world while Captain John quietly attempts to regain his own sense of peace.
The film is colorful and lovely, with many exterior scenes showcasing, not the typical elephants and exotica, but tranquil views of the placid river and the life surrounding it. The story never becomes overly complicated or melodramatic–although several crises do occur–and it is partly due to this subdued approach that the French critic AndrÈ Bazin championed the film as “Renoir’s Rules of the Game of his second period.” Like the searching, exploratory characters of the film, Bazin suggested Renoir’s film illustrates the filmmaker’s personal evolution:
“Why, then, instead of blaming the unevenness of Renoir’s American period on the fluctuations of economic and social conditions, do we not see it as part of a profound moral evolution of the artist? Why not suppose that for Renoir it was less a question of adapting himself to Hollywood than of developing himself, of at once mastering a new way of thinking and feeling and creating an adequate means of expressing it. . . . Renoir recently wrote: ‘I spent ten years outside of France. The first time I came back to Paris, I sat down with some old friends and we took up our conversation not where it had stopped when I left, but where it would have been if we had continued to see each other all those years.’ I suspect that this statement is more of a wish than an objective fact. But whatever it is, consider the idea of evolution which it implies.”
Bazin then writes at length on the film’s atmosphere (“its majestic dimensions, its sense of grandeur, its universal spirituality”) and its refreshing simplicity: “Some are surprised by the slightness of the content of The River. . . . I think they are blinded by their literary frame of reference. They judge the film on the basis of the novel it could be turned into.”
True to Renoir’s subtle sense of construction, however, the first scene at a party unites the three girls and Captain John and serves as a dramatic model for the characters’ subsequent interactions. John inadvertently hurts Harriet’s feelings by innocently calling her a “little girl”; he awkwardly shares a drink with Melanie, who seems frozen between friendliness and remove; he dances with Valerie, whose flirtations are expressed as equal parts physical and willful competition.
But the film’s scenario is merely a loose framework for emphasizing its setting through various festivals, bazaars, and imaginative legends. Bengal is beautifully revealed and the film offers a relaxed portrait of a culture with an ancient history, the drama rising and receding like the serene waters of the river itself.