The River (1951)

11 10 2008

There are a lot of admirable missteps here and overall, the film is far from Renoir’s best, but it is still pretty good. The nice, early technicolor cinematography definitely goes a long way to making the film as enjoyable as it is, though I have to admit that it tends to lapse into a level of garishness. The story is simple and straight-forward enough, but most of the characters end up being not only unlikable, but also pretty irritating. The ever-looming voiceover is anything but flattering and tends to interrupt potentially great sequences. To round things out, there is some terribly obvious and embarrassing symbolism. In spite of all of this, the film, as a whole, does indeed work.

A large part of this is due to the aforementioned technicolor visuals, which are brilliant at times, and dreadfully lush at times. I suppose the latter isn’t the result of anything Renoir or his crew could have done, but rather an inherent trade-off that comes with early technicolor film stock. The good does outweigh the bad and it would be pretty crazy to say that the film would be better off in black-and-white, but still, some of the high-contrast, ultra-bright shots tend to cloud the overall visual brilliance that is present here.

The story is on a similar wavelength, occasionally coming off as a very tender and perceptive observation of life in India, while at other times being a crude melodramatic mess. The voiceover, which is still definitely annoying, does quickly “set things up” which does make it easier to concentrate more on the characters’ feelings as well as Renoir’s aesthetic. I guess that compliments my overall feelings of the film: some elements are irksome, but they sometimes create some of the most wonderful moments. Indeed, the annoying voiceover is more exposition than it is poetic, but it does reach a Chris Marker level of brilliance a few times. There aren’t enough for the voiceover to justify itself, unfortunately.

The casting is another example of the film’s two-sidedness. I admire Renoir’s decision to include non-actors and actors alike, but they simply don’t work all that well together in this case. Thomas E. Breen, a non-professional and definitely the most natural performer in the film, is almost like a Bresson-ian model surrounded by a trope of Shakespeare-ian trained actors. Needless to say, when he’s together with most of the cast, it is a bit awkward. His sequences with Radha are the best acted sequences in the whole movie, and are so by a significantly large margin. I might even go as far as to say that the relationship between Melanie and Captain John saves the film from falling into mediocrity all-together.

I guess this does paint the picture of a film that is only a mild success, but it is actually a great accomplishment. At this point in his career, Renoir could be considered an “American director” (not literally, mind you) and the fact that he was able to shot a movie completely on location in India is pretty remarkable. On a historical level, the film apparently helped paved the way for Satyajit Ray, who worked as an assitant, as well as his cinematographer Subrata Mitra so it definitely can be appreciated for that. While it comes up short of its potential, it does have some of the most fascinating and beautiful moments in Renoir’s entire career.

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One response

13 10 2008
gaston monescu

I am very late in this but perfect write-up, I think you have hit the nail on the film. I am always a bit skeptical praising The River, because there are so many obvious flaws in the film but at the same time I cherish it for unknown reasons. There is fantastic a breath of fresh air in the film. You mentioned the importance of the film in terms of film history, with Satyajit Ray’s contributions or what not. But there is a personal significance in the film for Jean Renoir, after a dreadful war and nearly an equally dreadful experience in Hollywood, he found relief in India and was just consumed by its spirituality and nature. And that feeling of relief and optimism is so bright in the film that it is hard for me to dislike it.
On a related note, I think this is Jacques Rivette’s favorite Renoir and it is in his top ten. I found that as a bit of a surprise, because judging from Rivette’s own filmography I would have expected him to like some of Renoir’s more exciting features. But, oh well, I can’t really blame him. Great write up of Haut Bas Fragile, by the way, I am very glad to see that you have finally watched it. Hopefully your post on it will get more people to get to watching that one, of course the newfound subs on KG helps out quite a bit.

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