Old 07-08-2009, 04:03 PM
Jean Renoir's The River

The River (1951)

Once again we return to the great director Jean Renoir, director of such masterpieces as "Grand Illusion" and "The Rules of the Game." While "The River" may not be quite as good as those two films, it is still a good film; beautifully shot and containing a very simple story of boy meets girl. Well, actually, it's more like boy meets girls.

"The River" tells the story of a family living in India. The father (Esmond Knight) and mother (Nora Swinburne), who are never named, have five children, the most important to the story being Harriet (Patricia Walters). One day, their neighbor, Mr. John (Arthur Shields), receives a visitor, his cousin, Capt. John (Thomas E. Breen). Harriet immediately falls in love with him, as does a friend of hers, Valerie (Adrienne Corri), and even Mr. John's daughter, Melanie (Radha). Harriet and Valerie vie for Capt. John's affection while he is merely looking for a place to belong after having lost his leg in the war. Perhaps this is what starts to bring him and Melanie together as she too is looking for a place to belong, being half Anglo and half Indian.

After having seen the two Renoir films I mentioned earlier, I would not have expected a film like this to have come from him. The most obvious comparison is to the great Indian director Satyajit Ray (who ironically served as assistant director on this film), director of such great films as "The Apu Trilogy" and "The Music Room." It is not reminiscent merely because they all take place in India, but because both directors do a great job of immersing their audience in the culture of the country.

A great example of this is during one of the most extraordinary scenes in this film where Harriet is telling Capt. John and Valerie a story about Krishna where we see a formal wedding ceremony, a drawing on the ground made from rice paste, as well as an Indian dance performed by the bride. But it is not only here that the culture is explored, it is explored throughout the film when we are shown the bazaar as well as when we are told about the importance of "the river, which is most likely the Ganges.

What was interesting about this film was how simple the story was, but it is more than made up for with the beautiful photography the entire film was shot on location in India). Some would even argue that the immersion in the culture is more important that the simple story that is included in the film. I find that it is the mixture of both of these elements that make this a good film.

I had mentioned earlier that I wouldn't have expected a film like this to come from Renoir. That is mainly because "Grand Illusion" and "The Rules of the Game" had been fascinating character studies; one about French soldiers in a POW camp and the other about guests getting together for a dinner party respectively.

In a way, the characters in "The River" seem like they are secondary to the vast country that they live in. Renoir spends so much time showing us the country side, just about as much as he does showing us his characters, that it seems he means to include India as a character itself. Late in the film, he even means to show us that it can be quite a dangerous place.

I don't mean to make it sound like the characters are unimportant. Their story is interesting as well. We spend the whole film wondering which one of these three women the Captain will fall for completely, but Renoir chooses to tease us by having him form relationships with all three women. Keep in mind these are not necessarily romantic relationships, but special relationships nonetheless.

The story starts to end on a sad note and is left unresolved, but life, like the big river this family lives next to, must continue. We see the locals celebrating the arrival of spring while the family tries to get on with their lives. The film ends on the perfect note with a new arrival, one that fits together perfectly with the departure of winter and the arrival of spring. Life goes on. 3/4 stars.
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