****/**** Image A+ Sound A Extras A+
starring Nora Swinburne, Esmond Knight, Arthur Shields, Suprova Mukerjee
screenplay by Rumer Godden, Jean Renoir, based on the book by Godden
directed by Jean Renoir
by Walter Chaw There's something ineffable about Jean Renoir's same-named adaptation of Rumer Godden's The River. It has to do with how the light is different in our memories of childhood, the good days and especially the bad, captured here in three-strip Technicolor that understands at last Impressionism as a birthright of film. It's more real than real ever was, the "real" of nostalgia and melancholy and Romanticism. It's not possible to see in any other visual medium, though I confess I've seen it in certain poetry by certain poets. But there are moments--like in the films of Powell & Pressburger, who did their own Rumer Godden adaptation, the socio-sexual horror flick Black Narcissus--where you can definitely see it in cinema. The past, I mean. Not as it was, but as you remember it. The River captures the fear and longing of lazy summers on the cusp, of passing from innocence over to experience, of remembering things you never experienced so that you know you're connected to the entire stream of lives you've lived and lives you haven't, or haven't yet. I don't know how The River does it, but it does.
It's about two British families transplanted to India. One father, Mr. John (Arthur Shields), has married an Indian woman who's passed away. Another father (Esmond Knight) owns a jute factory, and for a few moments, Renoir shows stacks and rolls of the stuff packed in unlikely profusion on boats on the river. There's also another mother (Nora Swinburne). They don't have names, nor do they need them. A tragedy occurs at one point, and when someone accuses the mother of acting like nothing's happened, she says that it isn't true, they simply have to persevere. They have no choice. The river doesn't stop for a broken heart. Mr. John has a daughter, Melanie (Radha), who comes home one day dressed in a sari and schooled in traditional dance. "You look just like your mother," her father says. "I'm glad," Melanie replies. And you cry. I can't explain why you do if you do, just as I can't explain why you don't if you don't. It's something about how this film from 1951 is talking about miscegenation in terms of paternal love, filial love, tradition and duty, and how it takes an unimaginable amount of courage to make a life in a foreign place, knowing that the children will be its children more than yours. Ozu deals with this loss in most of his late masterpieces, this foundational human experience: If everything goes exactly according to plan, you'll experience the horror of losing your parents. You'll empty your nest. It's unendurable and yet you endure it. It's impossible and it's happened a billion times before and it will happen a billion times more.
The film opens with an ornate design being painted on the dirt using rice paste. Its pattern is ancient, totemized through ritual, and it's created with materials that are by definition temporary. Love is like that. It's eternal, but it's temporary. The river has been there forever, but it's never the same river twice. Film is like that, too. Film will decay, the colours will fade, everyone on screen will be dead someday. Maybe that day's already come. The first time I read Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," I felt an immediate connection to a larger world. Nothing I feel is the first time it's been felt. Nothing I do is the first time it's been done. And as artists express eternity, the experience of art is the experience of eternity. There's a moment where the nameless father's young daughter Harriet (Patricia Walters), a dedicated journal-writer and self-described "ugly duckling," watches as pretty Valerie (Adrienne Corri) receives a kiss from dashing neighbour Capt. John (Thomas E. Breen) and muses that she's just had her first kiss, but it was experienced by another. Renoir cuts from a two shot of Harriet and Melanie, framed in the parenthesis formed by perpendicular trees in a grove, to what is effectively their point-of-view: a wide shot of the captain and Valerie, so distant as to be reduced to colourful, abstract shapes against an immutable backdrop. Although this image is gone in a flash, it's there long enough for us to understand that the moment is a monument. We're invited to hold it in our memory. We do.
Harriet has a little brother, Bogey (Richard R. Foster), who runs around with a friend (Nima Baric), doing whatever it is that young boys do on summer days. They mess around with sticks. They look for snakes. They play at eternity. Bogey is a child of India but has been raised in a British cloister. His curiosity about his adopted culture, and the relative lack of cultural education provided by his parents, is punished in the roots of a giant tree that represents knowledge for the colonizers--not of good and evil, but of the solipsism of childhood and the greater world that doesn't really care about your dreams of empire. Bogey is the best elements of empirical aspiration, and then he's that hope inevitably betrayed. There are no happy endings to this story. To any story. Every story is tragedy. And we persist. Capt. John has lost a leg somehow. It doesn't matter until he's playing catch with Valerie and his false leg collapses beneath him. He's humiliated. He doesn't want Valerie's help getting back up. This happens immediately after Valerie has stolen Harriet's journal and humiliated her by reading passages aloud to Capt. John. Harriet is in love with Capt. John, see, and Valerie is, too, and in this instant she elects to be cruel about it. Capt. John participates in teasing Harriet. He feels shame. So does Valerie. When he falls, he blames it on Valerie. He's mean to her, although he lover her. It's complicated, these things between people.
The River, like Renoir's more lauded, more "serious" The Rules of the Game and Grand Illusion, is about nothing and everything. Its entire narrative concerns behaviour, relationships, cultural mores, and eccentricities. The clash of cultures in the film is subtle. There's no war, though violence is implied. There's no religion, though religion is shot through the piece, from Melanie's dance to literal serpents in this intensely-saturated Eden. There are no politics but that every human interaction is by its nature political. Ultimately, it's clear that everything was always this way, and everything is this way, and everything will remain this way. Renoir pulls his camera back often to view the surroundings. Unlike Ozu's famed "pillow shots," these passages for Renoir frame everything in nature as dependent on everything else in nature for definition. The wheelbarrow is only red because the chicken is white; only gleams because the chicken does not. At the end, Harriet tries to kill herself, yet it's not a big moment in the film. The river carries her back. She is caught in a drama, and then it passes. The film ends with a birth. A girl. Nothing is resolved, only renewed. The River is one of the best films ever made.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Criterion brings The River to Blu-ray in a breathtaking 1.33:1, 1080p transfer sourced from a 2004 restoration that still holds up. Colours are impossibly lush without also being garish, and there's an extreme clarity to the image that is entirely lens-based, with any digital tools applied lightly and deftly. A welcome patina of film grain is present, spiking during opticals but weathering the compression seamlessly. While it's not a new 4K scan, it doesn't feel like a compromise: Liken it to the first screening of a pristine print with a new bulb; it's that good. The attendant 1.0 DTS-HD MA track is crystal-clear. Extras launch with 2005's "Martin Scorsese" introduction (13 mins.), wherein the filmmaker reveals that although he's seen Grand Illusion forty times, he'd rather watch The River again if it came down to it. He confesses to not really understanding The Rules of the Game, a sentiment shared by many. What's not said--but I'm going to say it--is that The River is probably Renoir's best work. (Almost certainly his most accessible.) Scorsese singles out favourite scenes, discusses the picture's personal impact, and cements himself as very, very smart about film. In the "Renoir Introduction" (8 mins., HD), meanwhile, the director himself appears in a vintage short to explain how he went from reading reviews of Godden's source novel to shooting the picture on location in India.
"Around the River" (60 mins., HD) is an exceptional documentary on the making of The River from 2008 that assembles all the living participants to provide a complete history of the production. Renoir was box-office poison at this point in his career, jettisoned from RKO and struggling for validation in the United States. He makes this film. Producer Kenneth McEldowney, who was a florist by day, claims that Louis B. Mayer walked up to him on a plane and told him that he wished he'd made The River. It's a strange anecdote I want to believe. Satyajit Ray speaks at length as well about his experience on the film. Directed by Arnaud Mandagaran, it's an indispensable piece. Next, "Kenneth McEldowney" (48 mins.) is an audio interview with the producer that plays over a still photo. While he doesn't say much that isn't covered in the aforementioned documentary, he does offer more on Godden and her presence during the shoot. Lastly, "Jean Renoir: A Passage Through India" (15 mins., HD) has Paul Ryan (not that one) delivering an overview of Renoir's career while recounting some production lore specific to The River. Handsomely mounted, it's mainly a primer inviting deeper dives into the biographical material out there.
The famed Criterion insert features Renoir's own production notes, in which among other things he muses on the importance of meditation for a complete life. ("After living in India while making The River, I have become more peaceful.") It's fascinating to consider how this philosophy informs the film. Ian Christie contributes the liner essay, "A New Authenticity," a superb, humane look at the director that draws The River into his body of work and touches on the influence of his father, the great impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste. Christie compares a late pas de deux (really a "pas-de-quator") to the nocturnal games of The Rules of the Game and unlocks another avenue through these woods. He notes the Tree of Knowledge at the centre of the picture as it blossoms. It's a work of real critical love and a fantastic capper to an essential release.