Is there meaning to be found in the observation that this series of Criterion Collection film reviews began 2009 on the frozen banks of Hudson Bay (Nanook of the North) and now nears the year's conclusion by shifting from the sun-baked sands of New Mexico (Ace in the Hole) to the sultry tropical environs of Calcutta, India as we take a long, languid look at The River? The significance of life's planned events and chance encounters, love and longing, birth and death, time and memory, myth and concrete experience, the particularities of place and the universality of human emotional development, all this and more are flashed upon the screen in luminous Technicolor, a surprising and invigorating film from one of the great masters of cinema, Jean Renoir.
Before addressing The River's contents, let's just catch up a bit on what this grand old man of the movies had been up to since we last crossed paths with Renoir way back in April 2009. He directed five earlier Criterion films, including some of the most pivotal titles in this series (namely, Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game,) all dating from the 1930s, and he has several more to go before we're done with him. But what about the 1940s? Renoir directed a few features in the USA, after he landed there following the German occupation of France. But his Hollywood experience yielded unsatisfying results (from what I've read - I haven't seen any of those films) which led to him taking a more independent, unconventional approach to making movies outside of the nearly monopolistic studio system of its time. That this early forerunner of "indie" cinema would also rank as one of the most audacious logistical undertakings of any film of its era only adds another layer of luster to Renoir's already glowing reputation.
The River is situated and filmed on location in India, the first important use of Technicolor in that land, which involved a host of complex equipment and film developing issues. Because it was produced by a florist who'd never undertaken such a project before, financed on a near-shoestring budget and helmed by an out-of-fashion director in a very faraway land, no major actors could be secured for the project (though Marlon Brando had been talked about as the male lead.) As a result, some of the performances come across as stiff, awkward, amateurish, which only makes sense because several of the key roles are taken by people who had never acted on film before and wouldn't do much else of lasting significance afterward. It probably requires a bit of gracious overlooking from most of us to get past the point where an actor's clunky line reading or apparent self-consciousness distracts or undercuts our appreciation of The River, so indulge them as needed because once you get over that hurdle, the film offers quite a treat. Unless you're one of those cinephiles who simply cannot forgive a reliance on narrated voice-overs to advance the plot. I'm normally as on-guard against this kind of cheating as any movie buff but in this case I think it works to lend perspective and put the film's action in the context of reflective recollection - a positive enhancement, in my opinion.
The River's story revolves around a pair of English households in the last year's of India's colonial era, most directly centering on a girl's adolescent coming-of-age story as she experiences the first blush of romantic love and all the emotional turbulence surrounding that rite of passage. Based on the life experience of author Rumer Godden, who also wrote the novel upon which Black Narcissus was based, Western audiences were given a comfortably accessible portal into what was at the time (and largely remains) a very exotic and alien culture, the ancient civilization of India. Harriet, the young girl whose adult self provides the narration, is somewhere around 14 or 15 when she develops a crush on Captain John, cousin of the neighbor family's head of household, who's come to India to clear his head and emotionally recuperate from the loss of his leg in a war injury. Harriet has a rival within her own household - her older sister Valerie, who outshines Harriet in maturity, attractiveness and desirability as far as Capt. John is concerned. The two sisters also have several younger siblings (and another one on the way, as their mother is pregnant,) all girls except for Bogey, their reptile-obsessed little brother. Harriet's parents (unnamed) embody standardized late-Victorian views on the world - Father is all about business as the proprietor and overseer of a jute-processing plant, and Mother regards child-bearing as "the purpose of a woman." They come across as less engaged with the realities of life in India, preferring to insulate themselves in a cultural bubble, enabled by the layers of deferential servants they've assembled around themselves, with superficial concessions to some of the native customs and benevolent acceptance of "the white man's burden" (though I should be clear, those words are never spoken or referred to in the film.)
Next door lives another young woman, Melanie, the daughter of an Englishman and native Indian woman (now deceased) who lives outside of the caste system and clearly struggles with her sense of belonging in a society both rigidly traditional and on the brink of major upheaval. Though the year of The River's action is never stated and no connection is made with Gandhi or the end of British colonial rule, it's impossible to neglect the fact that, as of the time the film was released, India was again an independent and self-determining nation. Though remnants of English business interests remained and the recent history could not be undone, colonialism's underlying premise had been thrown into irrefutable disgrace. So what about that era's "by-products?" Melanie's predicament is rendered especially poignant when her face and persona are thrust into the ancient and venerable role of a reincarnation of the Lady Radha, bride of Krishna, as depicted in this clip:
Would her union with a native son of India be sufficient to reintegrate her into the new society? Or would her British heritage prove to be an insurmountable barrier? At the time of this film's release, these were potent and irresolvable questions. Time would have to tell.
Overlaid on these larger geopolitical and cultural concerns, a more ordinary family saga unfolds as we see the world largely through Harriet's eyes, but also come to empathize with Valerie and Captain John as they endure their own share of angst and uncertainty. Depending on one's tastes, the proceedings can feel a bit soapy and melodramatic (not that there's anything wrong with that) or may touch on some sensitive spots and unresolved issues in our own pasts. The River's stately pacing and ambivalence toward any obligations that the audience may push on the story-tellers to resolve the numerous conflicts may leave some viewers a bit impatient or even frustrated when we reach its conclusion; the idea that reality is essentially cyclical, not linear, and that tensions are better to be accepted "as is" rather than neatly drawn to reassuring conclusions, may prove challenging to those who wish to assert otherwise. The River, in its subtle and unassuming way, packs a solid philosophical wallop into its seemingly conventional narrative of blossoming youth.
A good portion of that existential punch is conveyed in The River's documentary sequences that Renoir intermittently provides as punctuation to the central story. The juxtaposition between "here and now" exposition involving the central characters against the backdrop of timeless scenes that might be as reflective of Indian life a thousand years ago as it is today elevates both the plot and our consciousness out of their ordinary preoccupations. Here's a clip that I'll leave you with as an object of contemplation.
As I sit here in Michigan, with the snow drifts piling up higher and higher outside my livingroom window, watching it again reminds me that reality - incomprehensibly vast, ancient, ornate and beautiful - surpasses our ingenious and dedicated efforts to summarize and explain it, and evades our most strenuous attempts to encapsulate it into convenient slogans or moods of the moment. The River, like life, just flows on endlessly...
Next: Early Summer