What it is • To call the "plot" of The River episodic would almost be an exaggeration - better to call it anecdotal, so slight are the moments it collects together like beads on a string. "Where would the world be without string?" one character asks another, defending his jute-processing business - and in this film the string is the narration by Harriet (Patricia Walters, but the voiceover is by June Hillman). A gangly redheaded adolescent onscreen, she is adult and wise on the soundtrack, offering a many-years-later reflection that carries all those brief moments along, linking them together like the titular river carries and links the boats. But boats, beads, whichever metaphor you like, those individual moments are the real stuff this film is made of and Jean Renoir's first experiments with color ensure that they glisten like pearls. A girl in white and gold dancing for her lover turned blue Krishna...a tangled green jungle through which three teenage girls tread, under a bright blue sky...the orange robes and orange flames of the Diwali ceremony set off by a glorious cacophony of reds, greens, and blacks...the overwhelming, intoxicating burst of spring: green, pink, orange, blue, punctuated by the explosion of red powder on a character's amused face. However, the film is not just visual spectacle. Despite its deceptively languorous and casual air, The River delves into war, death, grief, spirituality, heartache, displacement, the experiences and emotions big and small that define life. And at its best, the reassuring narration fades away leaving us with images that both speak for themselves and don't begin to tell us what to think as Harriet comes of age, competing with her friends Valerie (Adrienne Corri) and Melanie (Radha) for the attention of the war-wounded Capt. John (Thomas E. Breen).
Why I like it •
Watching the film tonight after several years, I was reminded of what could be considered its flaws: the ramshackle narrative structure, the occasionally on-the-nose dialogue, the frequently awkward performances by nonprofessional actors. Pauline Kael once (affectionately) noted Renoir's tendency to let scenes in Boudu linger for longer than they needed to, essentially disrupting the audience's expectations of rhythm. A similar effect is achieved by the opposite technique in The River, with Renoir abruptly lopping scenes off before they have reached a dramatic crescendo. The peculiarity of these cutaways is only reinforced by the use of dissolves (including my favorite dissolve of all time; more on that in a moment). All of this can seem strange and offputting to the viewer used to more polished productions and if I recall the making-of documentary correctly, the long-gestating script, technically-difficult shoot, and perhaps the necessity of cutting the film down to ninety minutes may have yielded some of these strategies, more practical than aesthetic. But watching the film tonight, I was also reminded that I don't mind most of these flaws and that some of them are actually virtues for me. I am particularly charmed by the performances, especially Walters as Harriet, whose occasionally clumsy or rushed line readings rather artfully suit the uncertainty and vulnerability of the character herself. She ends up being quite endearing, as is the the seemingly pleasant, deeply disgruntled veteran played by the uncomfortable-looking Breen. Harriet's confusion is rendered most poetically in the aforementioned dissolve. We are in the middle of listening to an older man (Arthur Shields) rationalize and romanticize a tragic death. The way the film presents his words, and the way characters like this are usually received in films, we are primed to accept this perspective as wise and thoughtful. Then, unexpectedly, Renoir melts away mid-monologue from the man's assured visage into Harriet's pained, silent expression, unable to verbalize or explain away her overwhelming sorrow. Those words suddenly seem petty and off-the-mark and while the beaten, wordless Harriet speaks much more potently. That's my take anyway; and another viewer might come to a different conclusion. There are no sure answers here, but this gesture is poignant and deeply cinematic.
How you can see it • The River streams on Hulu and is available on DVD from Netflix. I have written about it briefly for this site, including a capsule as part of a larger Criterion-on-Hulu lineup and also a reprinted IMDb comment (written shortly after my first viewing) in which I describe my reaction to that dissolve. You can watch a clip at 4:40 in "A Violent Release" (chapter 9 in my 32 Days of Movies series).
What do you think? • What is your favorite Renoir film? Do you prefer his work in color or black-and-white? How do you see this film comparing to his other movies? Do you find Harriet compelling or appealing as a protagonist and guiding presence? Do some of the more unusual qualities of the style add to or detract from your enjoyment? Did you expect the big event in the last third of the film? What was your reaction to it? How do you interpret Mr. John's speech? Do you think Capt. John was a good man? Did you think his interactions with Valerie were appropriate? Should he and Melanie have allowed a romance to blossom between them? Does the outsider's perspective of Culcutta over-romanticizes or simplifies its culture or daily life? If so, do you think that's part of the point, or something the film is not aware of? Do you see links between this film and later Indian films, particularly those by Satyajit Ray (who helped Renoir scout locations for The River)?
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Previous week: Late Spring (#78)
Next week: La Roue (#76)