The River (1951, Jean Renoir)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

One thing that’s really distinctive about Citizen Kane is that it’s proof that adding sound to cinema did not have to sap its wildest, most undiluted level of imagination. Jean Renoir’s The River, released ten years later, makes a similar point about color. There is a kind of mysticism and shimmer to black and white that cannot be duplicated in color except by the best cinematographers, those who can justify it beyond just the technological showcase. The movies that harness color as something to use, something truly beautiful, are all too rare. How intriguing that two of the three most beautiful color films (the others are Black Narcissus and Fahrenheit 451, for what it’s worth) are based on Rumer Godden novels. The color in this movie (photographed by Claude Renoir) isn’t showy or bombastic at all, but the film could hardly exist without it. We are engulfed by the realities it depicts as much as, if not more than, its storytelling.

Godden had been displeased with Black Narcissus despite its cinematic pedigree and was reluctant to allow the more personal novel The River to be filmed until the immaculately respected Jean Renoir agreed to work closely with her on the project. The result is a literary adaptation done properly, ebbing and flowing with the mood of the piece and making no attempt to shoehorn in the structure of a melodrama. Very simply, the film is about an adolescent girl living in Bengal with her family and British industrialist father, and how her first serious crush — shared with other girls nearby, her best friend and her neighbor — on an injured American Naval officer evolves over some months. The story is chiefly and primary about emotions, a coming of age in the purest sense. Its languid pace is deceptive — nothing really happens in the film, but everything does, everything that matters. Its peaks and crescendos are geared to a sense of inner life, an intimate exploration of this girl and all that surrounds her.

And additionally, the movie is about India, about the river of the title — as specifically seen through the eyes of a child, a budding artist. The film and novel both seem clearly based on Godden’s childhood in India, and the region, captured with detail and sympathy by Renoir, serves as an idyllic counterpoint to the central character’s hopes and longings. What we are seeing, indeed, is the forming of a personality, and the events that will forever after inform it. As the opening sequence says, it could’ve happened anywhere, but India gives it its flavor. The movie’s charm is seductive, and moreover its entire world absorbs the viewer.

Few characters in cinema seem as felt and touching as Patricia Walters’ Harriet, and few of the many portraits of adolescence feel so far from the way we tend to see it idealized, so close to a kind of truth. The aching dreams and realities of a teenage girl are, as in reality, overwhelmed but not trivialized by the world around them. The River is an act of poetry, visual and verbal, a distinction it shares with Black Narcissus but approaches far differently — soft and beautiful rather than abrasive and charged, it is filled with peace, hardship, and unstated things: the swing you share with the best friend who’s stolen the boy you want, the moments stolen away by a younger brother to prod at snakes and critters, the worries about mistakes and appearances, and of course the river: the ceremonies, the spiritualism, the calm enlightenment.

Among many lovely and telling scenes, there is a sequence — a fantasy of God and dancing from the observant aspiring writer Harriet (clearly a stand-in for Godden) — which is so lively and remarkable it shimmers even beyond the beautiful Indian landscapes the cinematography puts on display, because it’s humanity’s deepest, warmest heart defined in the persona of this girl who is not immune to her own desires yet cannot help but have the intelligence to see all that’s incredible about the universe that surrounds her, and in that fashion, she becomes an integral part of it. She is the world, really. Her story climaxes with a dance envisioned of her friend Melanie (Radha Burnier): erotic, romantic, alive, it’s the sort of magic scene one wishes to encounter far more in watching films.

Director Renoir is of course far better known for his black & white, French language films that inaugurated a new era in that nation’s cinema — Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game most of all. All of his work revels unabashedly in the joy and strangeness of people; interestingly, The River is close to being both his most verbally-driven and visually striking work. At least in part because Godden’s source material aches with autobiographical memory and longing, it seems among his most personal films, lending it an accessibility that many film-school staples can’t really approach. Of course The River can be faulted for being a distinctly white man’s interpretation, perhaps condescending, of Indian culture — but by the same token as an implicit glance at people, especially children searching for their place in the world, it’s riddled with undeniable and honest beauty. By the finale, when the dots of the three girls connect and they all drop their letters from the man they thought they loved to hear a baby being born, the subtle and striking lyricism (copped later by Woody Allen’s Interiors) is nearly too much to bear. It’s a movie with everything, its appreciation of life and first love universal.

You can stick to tangibles if you like — the Technicolor is, as mentioned, jaw-dropping, and the performances of the three central young women soar, along with those of the parents and children. Harriet herself is marvelously brought to life with impeccable intelligence by Walters, whose every facial expression is ridiculously charming; after responding to a Bengal casting call for this film, she never acted again. Indian actress Radha shimmers as Melanie, who figures into Harriet’s brilliant fantasy piece; she doesn’t seem to have performed again either. But Adrienne Corri, as the seductive Valerie, would twenty years later be graphically assaulted by Alex’s Droogs in A Clockwork Orange during the infamous “Singin’ in the Rain” scene. Harriet’s parents are gamely and believably portrayed by Esmond Knight, the venerated British actor who lost most of his eyesight during World War II and also showed up in Black Narcissus, and Brtish mainstay Nora Swinburne. But in the case of a film like The River, tangible things only go so far. This is so much more like a painting or a poem, something for the senses, exuberant and invaluable but reaching beyond the literal. It achieves sublimity in, above all, the sense that even if you’ve never set foot in India or even thought of doing so, even if you know nothing of the time in which it was made and set, it feels like growing up, like your life and mine. This is a lovingly made film.

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