Review of The Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition. The River d. Jean Renoir (1951) Spine: #276 Blu-ray Release Date: April 21, 2015 Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc, but resolution has been reduced from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed. You may click on them to view the 900x506 image.
After its publication in 1946, Rumer Godden’s novel The River received an enthusiastic review in The New Yorker magazine. Jean Renoir, getting a bit tired of his time in Hollywood, came across the review, read the book, and wanted to make the movie in India. At about the same time, a Beverly Hills florist named Kenneth McEldowney watched a film he found particularly awful. After listening to his complaints, McEldowney’s wife dared him to make a better movie. And so, the florist became a producer, shopping for his first film, which he wanted to film in India, where he’d served as an air force officer in World War II. He also stumbled onto Godden’s novel. Through an interesting series of events, the amateur producer and the grand filmmaker became acquainted due to their common interest.
Their next step was to convince Godden to let them make the picture from her book, something she vowed she would not do as she was so disenchanted with film adaptations after Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger adapted her 1939 book, Black Narcissus, in 1947. Though by my estimation she was wrong about the merits of the film version of Black Narcissus, Godden was right to come around and work with Renoir and McEldowney to create Renoir’s first color film, The River (1951). Today, The Criterion Collection is upgrading their DVD edition of The River, giving us a beautiful new Blu-ray edition, a treat following closely on the heels of their release of Renoir’s 1936 film, A Day in the Country (my review here).
On its surface, The River seems like a simplistic coming-of-age story that happens to be flavored by a unique setting. Indeed, the first time I watched it, I wondered why many fans of Renoir love the film, which, though beautiful, seemed to be a few narrative steps down from Renoir’s sophisticated work of the 1930s. The characters and the stories they’re telling just aren’t as interesting as those found in, say, Boudu Saved from Drowning, Grand Illusion, or The Rules of the Game. My opinion there has not changed. However, what I found upon reflection and revisits was that the characters and their stories are not the focal point when it comes to The River. What is? The richness of humanity — of the human phenomenon on this earth. While the characters here, in particular the narrator, do not possess earth-shaking stories, their stories are important to them, and thus to Renoir, and thus to us. When looked at from that perspective, I found in The River that soft touch that so deepens the pathos in Renoir’s earlier gems, like A Day in the Country, which has a story that also could appear quite hum-drum on the surface.
Just below is an image — one of many — that shows Renoir’s attention to humanizing details that bring us together with the characters. Here the mother sleeps and begins to drop her book; her shoe has already fallen to the ground. That last detail is one that the great director Satyajit Ray would pick up and remember well.
For me, those details are what make The River such a wonderful film. They help us recognize ourselves in these characters. Their joys, big and small, as well as their sadness, great and small, and we’re all on this course downstream; we recognize the moments of respite.
We meet our voice-over narrator, Harriet, when the film begins. She’s an older woman, looking back on her adolescence and loss of childhood innocence at the time when she first fell in love. She says it’s a story that could have — and does — happen anywhere, though in her case it happened in India, on the banks of the Ganges. Harriet’s family is British, and her father ran the jute mill in the years before the British Empire’s reign in India was truly coming to an end.
Harriet has several sisters, including Valerie, the oldest who is on the verge of womanhood. It would be improper for Harriet and Valerie to mix too much with young Indian men, so when Mr. John comes to visit his cousin next door, Harriet and Valerie find themselves rivals.
But, as familiar as that story is, again it’s the details beneath the surface that leave their power. Mr. John is rather kind to the girls, but he’s not truly interested in either of them, even if Valerie does provide a distraction, a more appropriate distraction, given her age, than Harriet. Harriet seethes with jealousy, but she doesn’t need to. Mr. John is more interested in his personal problems than he is in either girl. And if he were to associate with anyone it would be with his cousin’s daughter Melanie, who is mixed race, her father being British and her mother Indian.
Like Mr. John, Melanie is also at a trying stage of life where no pathway seems to lead to a solution. Part of her problem is that she’s both Eastern and Western, and therefore she’s not fully either.
For the most part, Mr. John’s troubles and Melanie’s troubles remain unstated, but they provide a poignant undercurrent to the more childish story playing out before our eyes. Again, everyone knows Harriet’s childish crush will end — even Harriet — but that doesn’t make it less important to Harriet. The loss of that childish importance is deeply felt. Besides a death that we expect all along, the film goes into some true darkness as Harriet deals with her various losses.
And the Blu-ray is beautiful, really showing off the colors of the daytime but never neglecting the richness of the nighttime rituals on display.
Supplements to the Criterion Collection blu-ray edition:
While the supplements in the new Criterion Collection edition do not delve into much film analysis, which is too bad because I truly feel there is a lot to talk about, there is a lot of interesting information about the film’s production.
First, we get an 8-minute introduction to the film by Renoir himself from 1962. He tells about how he came upon the book when he read a review of it in The New Yorker. He shopped it around, but no one was interested in filming a movie about India that didn’t feature elephants (mostly because they couldn’t believe a film could be about India if it didn’t feature elephants).
Next, we get a 13-minute interview with Martin Scorsese from 2004, the year in which he was instrumental in getting the film restored. I love to hear Scorsese talk about movies, especially movies like The River that he watched as a child (9 years old, in this case) and that became formative for him. Scorsese’s interview goes more into the filmic elements, talking about the use of color (he considers this and The Red Shoes to be the two most beautiful color films ever made), the non-actors used, and a bit about Renoir’s career. Interestingly, he says that was always completely outside of Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, considered by many to be his masterpiece, what with its French aristocratic games, and yet he always felt very much inside the world of The River.
Next is Around the River, a 2008 documentary about the production that runs for an hour. Much of the information in this documentary is found elsewhere in the supplements, but the documentary contains a lot of production photographs along with a few interviews with other filmmakers who were influenced by The River. Particularly delightful to me was a segment of an interview with the great filmmaker Satyajit Ray, who was working in an ad agency when Renoir came to film The River. Ray talks about going to Renoir’s hotel and asking for the great director, who was kind enough to talk. Eventually, Ray would join Renoir on his trips to the countryside to scout for locations. A few years later, Ray would make his first feature film, which I’m hoping I’ll be talking about on this site later this year.
The disc also has a nice, lengthy (at 47 minutes) audio interview with producer Kenneth McEldowney from 2000. McEldowney seemed to have only good memories of the experience and was definitely proud of his role in The River.
Last, other than a trailer, the disc contains Jean Renoir: A Passage through India, a new video essay by Paul Ryan on Renoir’s approach to filming The River.
The disc also comes with a fold-out leaflet with an essay, “A New Authenticity,” by Ian Christie, and “Notes on The River,” some production notes by Jean Renoir. In “Notes on The River” Renoir writes briefly about his transformative experience living in India. He writes about “work” and “meditation”; the experience seemed to lead him to some degree of peace.