August 1, 2017
“In The River the screen no longer exists; there is nothing but reality.” – André Bazin
I have long been tantalized by this Bazin quote, which Dave Kehr included in his capsule review of The River for the Chicago Reader. It seems absurd on the face of it, as Renoir’s 1951 feature is blatantly artificial, shot in blazing Technicolor on a mix of studio sets and a refurbished Indian home. Bazin does not mean to say the film is documentary in any way, but that it captures the reality of the artifice, or to put it yet another way like Picasso, it is a lie to get to the truth. Renoir took a coming-of-age memoir and peeled back so much incident and plot that what remains is more reverie than narrative, leaving time to linger on faces and landscapes and the ever flowing Ganges. The emblematic images for me are a montage of naps which Renoir zooms in on with swaying drowsiness, aping the drift into unconsciousness. The film as a whole has the same kind of lulling effect, and if you lock into its tempo the screen will drop away as it did for Bazin, revealing eternal verities. If not, you’ll see an uneventful travelogue with pretty cinematography, which still isn’t too shabby.
Renoir started thinking about The River in the fall of 1946, when he read about a new book by Rumer Godden that was written up in The New Yorker (she also wrote Black Narcissus, adapted by Powell and Pressburger in 1947). It was a coming-of-age tale about an English girl growing up in India. Pascal Merigeau, in Jean Renoir: A Biography, reports that Renoir pitched the idea to David Loew and Enterprise Productions later that year in a letter: “I know that few people are going to realize the wonderful possibilities contained in this story, but I feel that it is exactly the type of novel which would give me the best inspiration for my type of work — almost no action, but fascinating characters; very touching relationships between them; the basis for great acting performances; and an unexpressed, subtle, heart-breaking, innocent love story involving a little girl and a physically broken-down, morally sick, but still hopeful, wounded officer.” Loew turned him down, saying, “we are going commercial.”
It took five years before the project got off the ground, thanks to Kenneth McEldowney, a florist shop owner in Los Angeles who wanted to start his own production company. A born salesman, he was able to cobble together investments from the Indian government, Indian Princes, and the British National Film Finance Corporation. The financing of the film was dependent on it shooting in India, so Renoir and crew would go to Calcutta. The decision to shoot in Technicolor was an onerous one, as equipment had to be shipped from the UK, and footage couldn’t be seen for weeks because it had to be sent back to England for processing. Renoir was largely shooting blind, and his cameraman, nephew Claude Renoir, Jr., had never worked with Technicolor before. It was a daunting task for any filmmaker, but Renoir was invigorated by the challenge, and fascinated by the Indian culture he barely knew. When he returned from his first trip to Calcutta he wrote that it was, “one of the greatest inspirations of my life.” There is certainly a travelogue feel to the film, with explanatory insert shots of Diwali and the Festival of Colors. Rumer Godden, who collaborated on the screenplay, was annoyed by these inserts, decrying them as commercial pandering, which they certainly were. However they were effective, especially with the added voice-over which helped to explain the story, which had been cut to the bone in Renoir’s extended editing process (over 10 months).
To stay under budget they did not cast any stars, with the main female role of lovestruck Harriet going to Patricia Walters, a gawky Australian school girl who never acted in film again, and the part of her crush, Captain John, was given to Thomas Breen (son of infamous censor Joseph), who would stop acting after the production. Captain John was a WWI veteran who lost a leg in battle, and ran away from the U.S. to avoid all the suffocating pity. Breen had gone through similar suffering – he lost a leg in WWII – and while Renoir worried about what the publicity department would put him through in promoting his disability, still cast him in the role.
It is not just Harriet who has fallen for Captain Jack, but also her more mature teen neighbor Valerie (Adrienne Corri), whose flirtatious confidence soon catches the Captain’s eye. Harriet is no more than 14 or 15 years old, and has been dreaming of her first great love. Captain Jack treats her like a puppy dog, but for Harriet her whole world is shifting. And so it is with the whole of her family, which consists of five girls, a boy, and trusty mom and dad. The father (Esmond Knight), is the foreman of a jute press who is always putting a brave face on things, while his regal wife (Nora Swinburne) is more of a realist, telling Harriet she has an “interesting” face when Harriet asks her if she is ugly.
The most notable actor on hand is John Ford repertory player Arthur Shields, who is on hand to play Mr. John, the closest neighbor to Harriet and family. Mr. John has totally assimilated into Indian culture, having married a local Indian woman and raising his daughter Melanie (Radha Sri Ram) on his own. All of these characters drift in and out of a thinly sketched story. The main thread is Harriet and Valerie’s blossoming love for Captain John, but it is not moved forward, problematized, or resolved. Their love just sits there as a fact, while Renoir glides onto other things, like Harriet’s retelling of the story of Ramayana, visualized through a fantasy sequence in which Melanie transforms into Lady Radha, the feminine aspect of God, and performs a traditional Bharatanatyam style dance. Renoir films it in a long shot with little movement, only slightly reframing to capture the more drastic movements.
The entire film is more restrained in camera movements than most of Renoir’s work – Bazin claims there is “not a single pan or dolly shot in the entire film.” The last shot of the film is a dolly, though his larger point stands, for the most part he stays static. Though this was likely necessitated by the heavier cameras required by Technicolor, it also presented an opportunity for Renoir to experiment with stasis, incorporating that style to match the philosophy of the film, which is encompassed in the last dolly shot that moves towards Harriet and then rises above her to the river behind. The everyday troubles, from minor annoyances to major tragedies, are subsumed in the flow of time. The voice-over ends the film with, “The day ends, the end begins.” This final shot, and these final words, try to isolate that perpetual state of becoming possible in every present moment. The movie ends and has become a part of our life, the screen has disappeared and there is nothing left but reality to greet us.
This is the eleventh part of a series covering the films of Jean Renoir, sixteen of which are streaming on FilmStruck. To read the previous entries, click below.