THE RIVER (Jean Renoir, 1951)

The world’s greatest filmmaker in the first decade of sound, France’s Jean Renoir was stranded in Hollywood during the war and a bit after (the marvelous 1945 The Southerner is one result of his U.S. stay), and during the fifties, although no longer the bohemian quasi-Communist and cutting-edge artist of younger days, he made a few outstanding films, among them French Can-Can (1954) and Eléna et les hommes (1956). Above all, The River is a tremendous achievement. Rumer Godden, who had written the novel, thought the world of it and of Renoir (the two of them collaborated on the script), and this calmed her outrage over Black Narcissus (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, 1947), a vastly inferior work based on another of her novels. With The River, Renoir and his cousin, cinematographer Claude Renoir, made an exceptionally beautiful color film.

The setting is Bengal, in postwar India. (Godden herself grew up in Bengal.) The focus is on a British family, whose father (Esmond Knight) manages a jute factory. The eldest daughter, Harriet, is the protagonist, and the film, structured as a reminiscence, is narrated by this character (June Hillman, wonderful) some time in the future. Throughout, there is contrast between the maturity of the Harriet we hear in the voiceover and the rawly emotional teenager we see in flashback. Theirs, as her father puts it, is a “house of women,” for Harriet’s four sisters (including twins), mother (Nora Swinburne), and a native nursemaid, Nan, also live there. The children aren’t really “women” but are “girls”; however, the father’s indulgent description betrays the repressed extent to which he feels overpowered by females, and, beyond this, helps reinforce the subtle elasticity of time, encompassing voiceover and flashback, that is at the heart of this film about time, time suspended and time passing. The one male child is Bogey, who, ever inquisitive in the woods in his backyard, is usually off on his own or with a native friend, playing with turtles and lizards. Bogey is as vulnerable in his extreme youth as the elderly Sikh, the gateman and a former soldier, is vulnerable in his old age. This is a film about female emotional vulnerability and male physical vulnerability: Harriet’s father has one eye, the American boy with whom Harriet falls in love, Captain John (Thomas E. Breen), one leg, the maiming in both cases the result of combat experience. In the course of the film, love asserts itself for the first time in three different girls’ lives, Bogey dies, and Harriet’s mother gives birth to another child: the round of life—the round of life.

The symbol of life in the film is a maternal one: the wide river on whose banks Harriet and her family live, and which appears either at the fore or in the background of many of the shots in the film. Fishermen fish in the river; people bathe in it. It is life-giving and eternal (it comes, the voiceover says, from the “eternal snows” of the Himalayas), and, symbolically at least, it also carries people away, to their ends (and new beginnings), in its flow. Subtly, Renoir and Godden imply a connection between this mighty river and Kali, the Hindu embodiment of creation and destruction, for, without destruction, we are told, there can be no creation, every end being also a beginning. This paradox finds cosmic principle rather than literary irony conjoining the death of one child and the birth of another, but, again implying the film’s elasticity of time, it also conjoins the birth of the child with Harriet’s falling in love for the first time, an event that implicitly connects to the future occasion when Harriet (with someone other than Captain John) gives birth to a child (by now, the point in time of the voiceover, this likely has happened in the past), as her mother once did many times. And each sweet birth will be bittersweet, because each will refresh the mortal awareness in Bogey’s survivors that has become attached to memories of his death, and to the loss of other loved ones over time. Time, time suspended, time passing.

If, on different symbolical levels, the river resonates as both temporal life and eternity, on another it resonates as memory. The River is, above all, a film about memory—not about first love, as the voiceover claims, but about the memory of first love. In effect, the adult Harriet is telling a story about her life, but she is indeed telling a story. This includes filling in details about other characters’ lives—memories that belong to others. Godden and Renoir have lit upon a sly way to alert us to the fact that the woman whose voice we hear is telling a story, not disclosing (as though she even could) events as they unfolded in time. At the outset, this voiceover, before it has begun to tell the story, introduces us to the film. This precedes the opening credits, along with an activity that is completed after the credits: the painting of exquisite designs on the floor of a home, using rice flour and water—an Indian custom, the voiceover explains, for welcoming honored guests. We the audience are the “honored guests” here. It is only with the story that she has to tell that Harriet (Patricia Walters) becomes a character in the film, and this takes time to happen. First, the voiceover addresses us (in its time and ours, however different the two may be); second, it enters the realm of memory—the realm of the river, with a gorgeous shot of a fisherman in his boat on the river, accompanied by a rower and a young boy, as he prepares his net for a day’s work, and as another, much larger vessel passes behind his small one; third, we see countless others at work, docking with bales of jute; fourth, the father is introduced, walking home from work—a collapse of time hinting the film’s elasticity of time; fifth, Bogey and his friend are introduced, followed by Nan and Harriet’s sisters; and then we see Harriet as she was as a teenaged girl, but not solo, but, rather, in a two-shot also introducing another sister. The voiceover has insisted that it is about to tell its story as the story actually happened, but everything we have thus far seen and heard ties Harriet’s reality to memory. In a film noir, this might signal the distorted perception of the narrator who is also a character; here, there is something of that, as we shall see, but, broadly, its intent is very different. From the outset, we appreciate what depth each element of the story will have—the depth and breadth of the river. Every element will be invested with the grown Harriet’s, that is to say, with Godden’s and especially Renoir’s, feelings about life, about the value of life, about the richness of life, as experience—way beyond that of the girl at the time in which the story is set—has, incrementally and cumulatively, brought these feelings to them. This process, which the film, as it were, has accumulated, will continue beyond the boundaries of the film, as the lives of its makers go on, as they learn more, understand more, live more—and as we go on, learning, understanding and living more, and bringing the fruits of all this to fresh viewings of the film. This also is “the river” of the title.

Besides Harriet, there are two other girls in the film who are roughly the same age. One is her closest friend, Valerie (Adrienne Corri, by turns lovely and cruel—excellent), who becomes her rival for the attentions of handsome Captain John. The other is Melanie, the daughter of Harriet’s next-door neighbor, Mr. John, Captain John’s cousin. Mr. John (Arthur Shields, Barry Fitzgerald’s brother, in a great performance) is English, but his daughter, whose deceased mother was Hindu, is Anglo-Indian—hence, without caste in a nation structured by its categories of social and (presumably) spiritual ranking. Melanie has just returned from an English school; more and more she is being drawn into her Indian identity, bringing her closer to her father, who has fully embraced Indian culture, but deepening, ironically, her sense of not quite fitting in at home. In this, she is rather like Captain John, who, “uprooted by the war,” has left America, where he feels something of a stranger among his own countryfolk, out of pride in the face of being greeted with such pity over his war injury. In a telling moment, Melanie says that she doesn’t understand Americans; yet she understands Captain John. The principal sources of the film’s immense warmth are Renoir’s great love of children, even the incessant chatter and noise of children (Renoir is not one to believe that children should be seen but not heard), and the warmly open, generously loving relationship between Mr. John and Melanie, in distinct contrast to the more restrained relationships in Harriet’s family.

The River contains a great set-piece. It portrays Diwali, for five consecutive days in autumn the Hindu Festival of Lights. In this celebration of “the eternal war between good and evil,” a candle is lit for each life that has been lost, turning each night, especially, into a great and grave spectacle. Good is born, we are told, through the destruction of elements of evil, and it’s impossible to believe that Renoir did not have Adolf Hitler in mind at this juncture. Indeed, on one level The River resonates as a film about temporal wars that image forth the “eternal one,” but Renoir balances any implicit endorsement of war with the cost of war, the human suffering that Captain John’s and Harriet’s father’s injuries signify. Some time later, by the strange river of associations that this film lets loose, out of time and out of logic Bogey comes to seem a delayed casualty of war. He is killed by a snake, a cobra that he coaxed out of its wooded milieu with a flute. Without doubt, Renoir, whatever Godden’s different associations, had war in mind here. The world is a dangerous place, and war feeds and embodies this pitiless danger. The precariousness for Bogey is ironically stressed; he remains crouched on the seeming safety of his family’s garden, while the cobra appears deeply entangled in the roots of an ancient tree, in another realm entirely, yet poised to attack Bogey in an instant. Nothing else in cinema surpasses this scene as a metaphor for the constantly imperiled nature of peace in the world. Lest we miss the connection between Bogey and war’s victimization of humanity, not to mention humanity’s ultimate responsibility for wars, after Bogey’s funeral Mr. John, in one of the film’s most trenchant moments, laments that the world isn’t made safe for children, as it should be. “We catch them in our wars,” he declares, “. . . and we kill them.” La grande illusion (1937) is Renoir’s masterpiece about the First World War; The River is, in however indirect a way, his film about the more recently concluded world war.

The festival also launches Harriet’s and Valerie’s rivalry for Captain John’s attentions—the girls’ mini-war or play-war, if you will. It’s another kind of border that they occupy from the one imperiling Bogey at the edge of the garden; we watch these girls go back and forth in an instant between burgeoning grownup feelings and silly, childish quarrels. Here is adolescence, betwixt childhood and maturity, where every feeling is keen beyond measure. One of the things that Harriet does to counter the advantage that prettiness confers on Valerie is to write a story that she hopes will impress Captain John, who has already praised her poems. It is based on India’s premier legend of love, that is to say, the love between Krishna, the human embodiment of Vishnu, a Hindu deity, and Radha, a cow-herding maiden. It is about, then, the reconciliation between high caste and low. We see Harriet’s story as a stylized event as she speaks, thus encasing young Harriet’s voiceover in the maturer Harriet’s voiceover (think of it as Chinese boxes of narration), and therefore wobbling the distinction of either, making it impossible for us to know from what vantage this story-within-the-story gained each of its features and details. In any case, Harriet casts Melanie in the role of Radha by noting their resemblance to one another. Furthermore, she casts as the boy whom Radha/Melanie loves Anil, a high-caste suitor who, expecting since childhood to marry Melanie, is “anxious to give this girl without caste his name and nobility.” Harriet is mistaken; Melanie will never marry Anil. Moreover, in her story Harriet creates some other male character as the unwanted suitor and has Radha/Melanie fall instantly in love with another boy, whose path hers suddenly crosses one day. When she tells her father, however, he imposes his paternal prerogative, insisting that she marry the boy of his choosing. On her wedding day, when the groom’s veil is lifted and Radha/Melanie lifts the mango leaves from her eyes to behold him, startled, she quickly moves backwards in wide steps: the groom is none other than the boy she loves! It is at that point that she is transformed into Radha (as distinct from Radha/Melanie) and he is transformed, in her eyes, into the Lord Krishna whereupon, in celebration of her love for him, she breaks into a highly expressive ritualistic dance. Art sublimates life sublimating art as the dance transcends Harriet’s contrived tale to reveal genuine grand passions, the heartrending bounds and limits of love. Once the dance is finished, the bride and groom become themselves and the marriage commences.

The credits to the film throw in a tantalizing wrinkle to all this; the intensely beautiful young woman who plays Melanie, Radha/Melanie and Radha, giving, I might add, a soul-burning performance, is billed as Radha!* (Nothing else: just Radha.) This refreshes the film’s sense of time’s elasticity, but an even greater visual and dramatic coup awaits—a thing of genius on Renoir’s part. The rivalry between Harriet and Valerie that this tale of Harriet’s only intensifies reaches a new peak soon after—it may be the next day—when Valerie steals Harriet’s diary and embarrasses her friend by reading entries of adoration of Captain John aloud to him. Harriet exits, furious, and, after he chides her for her insensitivity, Valerie baits the captain into a kind of pre-frisbee frisbee toss that results in his humiliated collapse to the ground. “Don’t touch me!” Captain John yells at her before the Sikh helps carry him off. Captain John’s collapse (which may have inspired the image of the collapsing bicycle in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1953 I Confess) is a startling moment witheringly and powerfully resolving Radha’s dance, the other instance of great human movement in the film—only here, it is anguished, not joyous, unwilled, not creative, one soul’s inability to direct and control his body, not the dancer’s exquisite control of her body. In an instant, Harriet’s earlier story deconstructs, to reveal the envy and spite at its root; it collapses into darkness. Captain John’s fall to the ground is the delayed last step of Radha’s dance, as much delayed as Bogey’s death will be in relation to the Second World War, and, again by dint of the way this film almost subliminally associates things, it is a revelation also that, despite the fact that the other two hover about him so, it is Melanie who has fallen most deeply in love with Captain John.

Melanie’s closeted love for the captain, which Radha’s acting makes searingly unmistakable, is one of the film’s great human dimensions. It is a poignant gesture when she places blossoms on his lunch tray before it is handed to him, and the conversation that he inaugurates with her in response to this is trenchant. Melanie chides the captain for spending most of his time at Harriet’s house with Harriet and Valerie. He wonders aloud, blindly, if Melanie doesn’t like him. “It’s not you I dislike,” she explains; when he presses the matter, she adds, “The one I dislike is myself.” The situation is complex. What with the adolescent antics of the other girls’ infatuation for him, Melanie could find no way to approach Captain John with her love for him without seeming to lower herself to Harriet’s and Valerie’s (where love is concerned) immature, adolescent level. Moreover, there is something else. Melanie’s identity crisis, underscored by her being without caste in a society and culture of castes, is consuming her; she doesn’t want to be who she is because she has yet to determine just who she is. How, in this embryonic state, can she enter an adult love relationship? What can she give to a partner when she doesn’t feel whole herself? She has declared herself “Indian” but is unable to bring herself together in a way that allows her to feel Indian; she still feels that she is straddling a fence each side of which is a different culture—a self-division that her declaration was intended to resolve. Captain John makes his own declaration, that he won’t let his war injury crush him, that he is a complete man in any country, even with only one leg. Melanie counters, “Where are you going to find a country of one-legged men?” To this she adds another pointed question: “Why do we always quarrel with things?” When Captain John counters that his was a rebellion (against the pity that others gave him), not a quarrel, Melanie counters again, with the film’s finest line: “I thought mine also was a rebellion, but then I discovered it was only a quarrel.” It is these oddly parallel circumstances of theirs that has prompted Melanie’s deep feelings for Captain John, but it is the unresolved nature of these circumstances on both sides that make neither of the two individuals ready for love.

The River is a remarkable visual experience; human faces and Nature—trees, as well as the river—are equally rendered with convincing naturalism. There is a moment when Captain John unexpectedly joins Harriet as she is flying a kite, and the shot of the kite, as it skips about in the sky, is correlative to the “mingled emotions” that the mature narrator recalls having felt as the childish play is confounded by the captain’s physical closeness as he helps young Harriet guide the kite. There is Bogey’s funeral procession. At first, one may think, “Ah, the scene is taking its visual cue from the flow of the river,” but, as the procession continues, the human limitations involved, both emotionally and physically, become more and more apparent. What we see, if you will, is a labored and somewhat staccato movement, a jerking flow whose difficulty, encapsulating everything that the participants are feeling, becomes startlingly apparent when the soul at the head of the coffin, Mr. John, facing forward, finds the coffin suddenly colliding with a pole behind him. Near the end, each of the three girls—Harriet, Valerie, Melanie—receives a letter from Captain John, who has returned to the U.S. At first they seem almost to treat the letters as talismans, but as soon as they hear the sound of the cry indicating the baby’s birth—another girl (thankfully, not a boy—a touch that would have diminished Bogey’s death by too conveniently replacing Bogey)—each drops her letter and rushes indoors to attend to new life rather than love’s memory. Time, time suspended, time passing.

There is another whole dimension to the film: the stirring up of political currents that suggests the Renoir of the thirties. We do not much like the older Harriet, who remains superficial in her placing such importance on her mother’s physical beauty. Moreover, her mother, subservient, all but says that a woman’s job is to show her love for her husband by giving him babies, and this indeed must have rankled Renoir’s egalitarian spirit. Even more pointedly, Renoir’s irony borders on disgust regarding all the talk about how impoverished Indian life has gone on the same for centuries in the face of little or nothing being done to alleviate the poverty. In this context, Harriet’s father’s remark that he enjoys just watching the men toting bales of jute into his factory is callous and grotesque. In this context, too, we realize that the nursemaid is too young not to have a life of her own, to be merely an appendage to Harriet’s family. It’s good to see glimmers of the old Renoirian radicalism.

Jean Renoir is, of course, the son of Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and his cousin, Claude, is Pierre-Auguste’s nephew. Assisting on the film, uncredited, is India’s greatest filmmaker yet-to-be: Satyajit Ray, who drew imagery and the elastic representation of time from Renoir’s film for his Apu trilogy, especially the first installment, Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road, 1955). Already Ray had much the same humanistic spirit as Renoir.

The River, from the U.S., France and India, took the International Prize at Venice.

* Some years ago, when I wrote this essay, dance critic Mindy Aloff wrote me the following: “Melanie was played by one of the leading Bharata Natyam dancers in India at the time. . . . [H]er name is Radha Burnier (b.1923). She’s still beautiful, as you’ll see in the picture here, and she holds a master’s in Sanskrit and honorary doctorates. She’s also the president of the International Theosophical Society—a very bigwig in India, still.”

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One thought on “THE RIVER (Jean Renoir, 1951)

  1. What a beautiful essay on Renoir’s “The River”. I saw the film many years ago and have, strangely enough, very little visual memory of it, but reading the words conjured up the images of the actors and the immediacy and intensity of their feelings … “I thought mine also was a rebellion, but then I discovered it was only a quarrel.”

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