Did you know that director Jean Renoir is listed as the fourth greatest director of all time on both Sight And Sounds and The British Film Institutes lists? That is really quite a remarkable achievement considering the average person living today probably can’t name any of his films, and many people have never even seen any of them at all. Luckily, thanks to the amazing restoration work that is being done today, his filmography is becoming more readily available to the general public, and because of all of the “best of” lists that keep appearing, he is talked about more today than he was ten or fifteen years ago. One of Renoir’s films that had escaped me thus far in my life was the 1951 drama, The River. This film took an interesting and drastically different approach to filmmaking, as well as storytelling, and the end result is one of the most beautiful and artistic films that most people have never seen.
Jean Renoir’s The River (1951) is more than just a movie; it’s two movies. The first is a drama about a nameless English family living on the Ganges River in India. The film is narrated by the family’s second oldest daughter, Harriet (Patricia Walters). She lives with her father, her pregnant mother, four sisters, one brother and several caretakers and servants. The central plot surrounds Harriet and her childlike crush on a former British Captain, John (Thomas E. Breen), who has lost a leg during WWII and is dealing with his own demons. In addition, Harriet’s older sister, Valerie (Adrienne Corri), and also her best friend, Melanie (Radha), think they are in love with him as well. The plot itself deals with this one family’s adjustments to the changing world, as well as the differences between their own culture and the culture and traditions of the world that surrounds them.
The other movie within this movie that we are shown is an extremely insightful and majestically beautiful documentary of sorts on the culture of the country of India. Renoir obviously had fallen in love with the people and country, and he used his masterful skills to entertain and educate the rest of the world.
As far as entertainment value for the average movie viewer, The River is not going to appeal to many audiences today. It is an interesting look into the western perceptions of India during that time period, and it does an incredible job showing a realistic and intimate look at the country and its people, but in this day and age most people have a better understanding of India than they did just after WWII. The plot of The River is nothing to get excited about, but instead this gives its viewers an appreciation for quality film making in every possible area (especially the beautifully captured traditional India dance sequence).
What is interesting to notice is the different style and even the maturity that director Jean Renoir used to create The River. In many aspects, it was difficult for me to recognize The River as a Renoir picture. It came just after he completed the “Hollywood” portion of his career, as well as being his first film in Technicolor. As the son of an impressionist painter, the addition of color to his films came naturally. Two of the key elements of impressionistic art are an accurate depiction of light and having a common subject matter. Both of these were clearly on Renoir’s mind when filming The River. Many of the scenes could easily be paused and framed as a still image and would look like a masterful piece of impressionist photography, because essentially, that is what The River truly is.
Although I was not blown away by the complete package of this film, it is important to note the intense effect that it had on another great director, Martin Scorsese. Whenever you look up any information on The River you inevitably will find something that Scorsese has said about this film and its influence on him as a child as well as a filmmaker. He loves the movie and was a key figure in the restoration process in order to preserve it for future generations. In an interview on the Criterion edition of The River, Scorsese even went so far as to say that The River had a greater effect of his life and career then Renoir’s more popular films, 1937’s La Grande Illusion (Grand Illusion) and 1939’s La Regle du jeu (Rules Of The Game). As a huge fan of Scorsese, I couldn’t help but notice the influences that The River must have had on his own 1997 film, Kundun. I also read that Scorsese screened The River for another one of my favorite directors, Wes Anderson, and it served as inspiration for his own venture in India, in The Darjeeling Limited (2007).
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