Jean Renoir’s The River demonstrates with intoxicating lyricism the confluence of apparent contraries: past and present, innocence and experience, permanence and change—even Hinduism and Christianity. This gorgeously lensed coming-of-age tale, Renoir’s first film in color, opens with a montage that sketches out the rhythms of daily life along the eponymous Bengali river. The ruminative voiceover, delivered by an adult version of the film’s teenage protagonist, ushers the audience into a milieu that’s as precise in its spatial orientation as it is vague about its temporal setting sometime “after the war.” Self-professed “ugly duckling” Harriet (Patricia Walters) lives with her parents and five younger siblings near the jute factory run by her father (Esmond Knight). The family spends most of their abundant spare time in an idyllic garden. But, as Harriet’s father rather bluntly points out, there’s a serpent in every paradise, as well as the seductive temptation of forbidden fruit. The snake proves to be quite real, and the temptation is supplied by the arrival of one-legged war veteran Captain John (Thomas E. Breen), their neighbor Mr. John’s (Arthur Shields) American cousin. Captain John’s attentions are equally desired by Harriet and her older, more aggressive friend Valerie (Adrienne Corri).
Based on the novel by Rumer Godden, who co-scripted, Renoir’s film plays to strengths that are quite dissimilar to those evident in the adaptation of Godden’s Black Narcissus by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Black Narcissus exudes a morbid atmosphere of repressed sexuality that finally erupts in almost demoniacal hysterics. The River is equally concerned with delineating the disruptions of desire, but here its effects are viewed with Renoir’s typically nonjudgmental gaze. Likewise, Powell and Pressburger establish a heightened theatricality for Black Narcissus by using studio sets and glass-plate paintings of the Himalayas, whereas Renoir shot the entirety of The River on location around Bengal. Indulging his fascination with Hindu culture and beliefs, Renoir layered the finished film with a profusion of colorful documentary incidents, like the Diwali festival of lights and related Kali puja, revealing an attention to detail that calls to mind subsequent cinematic excursions to the subcontinent like Roberto Rossellini’s India: Matri Bhumi and Louis Malle’s epic ethnographic auto-critique Phantom India. Limitations imposed by the location shooting and working within the onerous restrictions of Technicolor cinematography, as well as dealing with a cast comprised almost entirely of children and nonprofessionals, evidently conspired to impress upon Renoir the advantages of shaping his material in editing. Consequently, there’s a notable lack of Renoir’s trademark camera movement.
The love triangle acquires a fourth side in Melanie (Radha), Mr. John’s Anglo-Indian daughter. Her half-caste status bespeaks an affinity with Captain John and his feelings of rootlessness. Rather than anything like affection arising between them, however, something closer to enmity develops, as though their mutual sense of displacement drives a wedge between them. When Valerie steals Harriet’s “secret book” and reads it aloud to Captain John, Harriet responds to the betrayal with real rage, saying, “I could kill you both.” Renoir doesn’t play up these events, though; his even-keeled narrative merely observes them dispassionately and moves on. Equanimity is the name of the game here. Renoir’s almost pantheistic attunement to nature in this film seems to acknowledge a cyclical view of life, death, and rebirth. Over against the Christian moralizing inherent in the ongoing Eden metaphor, Renoir sets a stoic forbearance derived from Hindu teachings. That’s never better illustrated than by the sense of acceptance that descends over the family in the wake of one child’s death and the birth of another. After Bogey is killed by the cobra he tried to tame with his flute, Harriet accuses her mother of wanting to go on as though nothing had happened. The mother replies sadly, “No, simply to go on.” This sense of uncomplaining acquiescence finds perfect expression in a bit of Harriet’s poetry that’s repeated over the film’s final shot: “The day ends. The ending begins.”
Rendez-Vous with French Cinema runs from February 28—March 10.