Published by Douglas Messerli, the World Cinema Review features full-length reviews on film from the beginning of the industry to the present day, but the primary focus is on films of intelligence and cinematic quality, with an eye to exposing its readers to the best works in international film history.
(screenplay and director, based on an idea by Levy and Alan Daiches) Herostratus / 1967
masterful film, Herostratus, is, as
critic Amnon Buchbinder has noted, "among the most influential of unknown
films." Its method of imagery shows up in numerous European and American
movies, from a broad range of directors including Antonioni, Kubrick, Godard,
Resnais, and Ashby. Yet none of these can quite match the raw intensity and, at
times, overreaching pretensions of Levy's powerful work. It was his only
full-length film, clearly synthesizing all of his concerns—scientific,
psychological, political, and artistic—of his short life. Levy committed
suicide at the age of 55 in 1987.
Although this film certainly does have a narrative, it would seem almost
pointless to talk about plot. The film begins with a handsome young man on the
run (Michael Gothard as Max) and ends with a similar scene, Levy's structure
being, a bit like Hitchcock's Vertigo,
circular. It is as if Max were living out his terrors as in a nightmare, never
able to escape the endless pattern of disgust and desire.
Dressed throughout the film in white, Max is for most of the work, a
kind of virgin hippie, a man whom he himself describes as being at the bottom
of the scrap heap. His dreary little room, its walls covered with newspapers
and other ephemera, a doll hanging by its neck on rope, parallels his own inner
state, a kind of empty rebellion that cannot seem to reach expression—much like
the angry young men of Britain's late 1950s and the later drugged out hippies of
both England and the US of the decade when this film was made. He is, in part,
trapped by the social extremes of the age—extreme wealth and painful poverty—controlled
by large institutions who use erotically laden psychological effects to sell
their goods (even the orange latex gloves attached to the film's model, Helen
Mirren) to the populace at large.
His anger is best expressed by Levy through Max's mad ax-swinging
revenge on his landlady as he maniacally destroys his own habitat. Yet he is
unsuccessful even at that. He is, simply put, a failure at everything. Presuming himself to be a poet he writes absurd love
poems while never having engaged in sex. As his nearby tenant, Sandy (Mona Chin),
observes he is unwilling even to express his own mind, to chance engagement with
the universe. The advertising executive Farson puts it best: he has created
nothing, done nothing, been nothing. In short, he is no thing but an agent of
the world in which he lives.
history, Herostratus was a young man who, seeking notoriety, burned down the
Temple of Artemis, a lavishly constructed tribute to the goddess of the hunt,
the wild, and childbirth, by King Croesus, a building that was recognized as one
of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. When captured, Herostratus not only admitted
responsibility for the arson, but proudly proclaimed to have accomplished the
act, hoping to gain attention. The authorities executed him, and, in an attempt
to condemn him to obscurity, forbade the mention of his name under penalty of
death. Nonetheless, we know his name today through the historian Theopompus's Hellenics.
Max is burning up inside, perhaps, but puts nothing to fire in the
world. With ax in hand, rather, he visits the offices of Farson, proposing a
bold idea to gain himself attention: he will offer the rights to his own death,
a suicide by jumping from a high building. The very fact that Farson actually
considers this proposal reveals the extremes to which he and his society are
willing to go to make money, his readiness to sell life itself, a theme repeated throughout Levy's film through
highly artificed, somewhat surreal images of overdressed models and, in
particular, scenes of a dancing stripper spliced together with images of the
slaughterhouse, the carcasses of dead animals juxtaposed against the body of a
living temptress: meat against meet. Even Farson's cold-hearted secretary-lover,
Clio (Gabriella Licudi), wants nothing to do with Max's proposal, but
nonetheless, is enticed into the project by sexually rewarding Max a final
dinner and his first sexual encounter with a woman.
The full level of Max's naivety is revealed
when he falls in love with Clio, determined now, for the first time, to cling to
life. Farson's revelation, however, that her love has been paid for by him, not
willfully given, and his lies about her reactions to the hesitant boy's sexual
skills, sends Max over the edge, a psychological reaction that, however, is not
matched by his suicidal jump. Instead, Max accidentally kills a rooftop
photographer, who falls trying to save Max from what appears to be an attempted
The "accidental murder" sends Max—representing a kind of
tragic mix of James Dean and Malcolm McDowell—on the run once more; but this
time we know that he has no place to go, that the run will lead only into
homelessness and death. The actor who played Max, Gothard, himself committed
suicide in 1992, at the age of 53.
Dardenne and Luc Dardenne (writers and directors) Le Gamin au véto (The Kid
with a Bike) / 2011, USA 2012
My companion Howard and I had arranged
for tickets to see the Dardenne brothers' The
Kid with a Bike at the Los Angeles AFI Film Festival in 2011, but at the
last moment the festival switched the time of that movie with another, and we
determined, to our disappointment, not to wait around to see the Dardennes.
I was joyful, therefore, to be able to see the film at the local
theaters in March of 2012, particularly since, as readers of my reviews well
know, I am a big fan of the Belgian film makers.
Although a bit smaller in scale than some of their other films, as well
as missing some of the issues of race and immigration that underlay their other
films, The Kid with a Bike is in
keeping with their oeuvre,
particularly L'Enfant and the
father-son relationship in La Promesse.
As in L'Enfant, where actor Jérémie
Renier sells his newborn baby on the black market and later uses young boys to
commit criminal acts, in The Kid with a
Bike the same actor has rid himself of the burden of his son, Cyril (the
charming Thomas Doret) before the film has begun, locking him away—at least
that is the way Cyril sees it—in an institution for unwanted children.
Apparently, it has all happened very quickly with little explanation, although
we later comprehend that the father, Guy Catoul, has gone bankrupt and is
without the resources and abilities to raise his son.
For Cyril, who clearly adored his father,
the facts are nearly inconceivable; surely his father would not have sold his
bicycle! And throughout the first third of the movie, Cyril tries to escape time
after time, in an attempt to return to his original apartment, hoping to be
reunited with his father. Tracked down by institutional officials, Cyril
escapes into a doctor's office within the apartment building, clinging to a woman
patient in defiance of their determination to again "imprison" him.
Hoping to convince Cyril of his father's absence, the officials allow him to
return to his apartment where he finds no sign of his former life, later
discovering that, despite his disbelief, his father has actually sold the bike.
A day later, the woman patient, Samantha (Cécile de France), touched by
the incident, arrives with the bicycle she has purchased back from the buyer,
returning it to the boy. For the child, the bike clearly represents his only link
with his beloved father and previous life, beautifully showing off his cycling
skills to the woman before asking her to become his weekend guardian, to which
she surprisingly agrees.
The search for his missing father, however, does not end, as Cyril tries
desperately to track down his father's whereabouts. Finally, on one of his
weekend visits, Samantha, who has gotten the father's address from the
institution, arranges for a meeting between father and son, warning Cyril not
to expect too much.
Whey Guy does not show up for their meeting, she doggedly visits his
apartment where his current lover reveals that he "setting up" her
restaurant for the night's dinner crowd. Even at the restaurant, however, Samantha
and Cyril are rebuffed. Although the boy sees his father inside through a
window, Guy has turned on the music so loudly—evidence surely of his attempts
to block out the real world—that he will not respond to their knocks. When they
finally face off with the man through a back entrance, the father-son
conversation does not at all go smoothly, as both try to briefly pretend that
nothing has come between them. Cyril pleads with his father to take him back
soon, or, at least, call him, carefully repeating his phone number at the institution.
But it is painfully clear that he will do no such thing, and when Samantha
returns to claim the boy, Guy takes her aside, demanding that she tell Cyril he
must never come back, insisting that seeing his son is too stressful, betraying
the selfishness of this man-boy who will not even consider what his rejection
has done to the child. As she begins to drive away Samantha attempts to relay
his dreadful message, but returns to demand the father tell his son himself
what he has told her. Cyril hears the awful news stoically, but as he and Samantha
begin to drive off, falls into a fit of self-destructing blows to his head. His
face remains scratched throughout much of the rest of the film.
Lovingly, Samantha begins to try to restore some sense of love to the
distraught boy—even though it costs her a own love relationship—but her
attempts seem to fall on deaf ears. Although it is clear Cyril wants and needs
her love, the only prize of his life comes from his past, in the form his
bicycle, which local teens try to steal from him several times. This leads,
ultimately, to a meeting with a man, Wes, who describes himself as "The
Dealer," as he woos the young kid—whom he names "Pitbull," on
account of Cyril's fierce fighting battles with those who would steal his bike.
Slowly pulling in the young Cyril, in a scene that parallels exactly what a
sexual predator might do to draw a victim closer (a grown man, he invites Cyril
into his bedroom to play electronic games), Wes offers a place for him to stay
and a kind of "brotherly" love missing from the boy's life.
Samantha is justifiably angry with Cyril's
refusal to answer his phone during the games, and even more terrified by his
encounter with "The Dealer." What she does not know is that the petty
criminal is already plotting to use Cyril in a criminal action where he will
hit a cafe owner over the head with a bat, stealing his daily earnings.
When Cyril attempts to leave the house, Samantha locks him up, even
pulling him away from a second attempted escape from a second-story window.
When he finally attempts to leave through her attached hair-salon, she pulls
him back yet again, this time with his stabbing her in the arm with a shop
utensil and escaping into the night.
Cyril nervously enacts the attack, but is forced to also bludgeon the
man's young son when he suddenly appears on the scene.Since Cyril may have been seen by the son, Wes
refuses to take the money the boy has stolen, rejecting Cyril and warning him
that he will kill him if he involves the man in any way with the event.
Having now been rejected even by the outsider, Cyril returns to the
restaurant where is father is chef, presenting him with a gift of his robbery,
hoping, of course, to allow Guy to invite the boy back into his life. When his
father yet again refuses to have anything to do with his son, sending back over
the wall into the night, the boy Cyril drops the stash and rides off, returning
to the only place he has left to go, Samantha's house. The police have been to
see her, and with Cyril she drives to the station.
In the penultimate scene of the film, restitution is made: the money has
been found and returned, "The Dealer" locked up, Samantha agreeing to
pay for the father and son's hospital bill. Cyril is made to present a formal apology.
The father accepts, but his son, who refuses the apology, has not joined him at the meeting.
Cyril has finally come to terms with his situation, his former violence
qualmed as he joins Samantha for a bicycle outing and picnic, he agreeing to
her plans for an evening barbecue with a young friend and their family. Sent
out to pick up some charcoal for the grill, Cyril is accosted by the boy he has
clubbed and is forced to escape back into the wooded area where "The
Dealer" and his gang have a small shack. In order to escape his attacker's
blows, Cyril climbs a tree, for which the other boy retaliates by throwing a
rock which hits Cyril, sending him into a fall to the ground. Startled by the
series of events, the attacker reunites with his father who demands they call
an ambulance. At the same time, however, he cautions his son that if Cyril is
dead, they should claim that the boy attacked him, instead of the other way
around. Before the ambulance arrives, however, Cyril, still somewhat shaken,
stands up. The cafe owner insists that he wait for the ambulance—he may have a
concussion—but the boy refuses, moving off to his bike and purchase of charcoal,
riding away, presumably to his new home and life.
Throughout this touching film, the themes have centered upon escape and
an attempt to return to a world that no longer exists, both of which result mostly
in violence and obfuscation. By film's end, however, the central character has
discovered how to accept nearly unbearable facts, and with that acceptance has
come a stronger love and sense of family that he had previously had. If the
world seems cruel and unjust, so suggest the Dardennes, one can survive through
faith and a belief in a new life. As usual, the filmmakers have transformed a
realistically simple story, one that may occur thousands of times each day,
into a kind of situational fairytale that helps us to find moral ground.
Coward, Anthony Havelock-Allan, David Lean, and Ronald Neame (uncredited, based
on a play by Noël Coward), David Lean (director) Brief Encounter / 1945, USA 1946
almost any standard video guide and you will read of the high praises for David
Lean's romantic melodrama, Brief
Encounter—so much so that, at times, one might almost think of the film as
a British classic. Halliwell's Film Guide
(a volume intolerant to most movies) declares of the film, for example,
"An outstanding example of good middle-class cinema turned by sheer
professional craft into a masterpiece." On the other hand, as my favorite
quick guide, Time Out, argues: "Much
beloved, but still exemplary in demonstrating what is wrong with so much of
The work has a story, even though it is hard to say the film has real
"events." A suburban woman of Milford, England, Laura (Celia Johnson)
once a week travels to the city where, after shopping, she takes in a movie
theater, returning by the evening train to her conventional marriage and two
children. Much of the story centers around the small tearoom, and it's mostly
comical residents, near the train's waiting platform, wherein travelers sip tea
and munch on pastries.
On one such visit, Laura stands on the platform when another train, not
stopping there, passes, throwing a small cinder into her eye. Inside the
tearoom she asks for a glass a water to wash her eye free of the painful bit of
grit, whereupon a man, Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard), stands up to help, noting that
he is a doctor.
simple event is almost forgotten until the following week the two run into each
other again, this time at a busy restaurant where almost every table is taken.
Accordingly, the two share a table and, later, an afternoon at the movie house.
Charmed by the idealistic doctor, Laura intrigues the married Alec with her
strong sense of self and her easy laugh (as he later puts it: "I love you.
I love your wide eyes, the way you smile, your shyness, and the way you laugh
at my jokes"). Feeling a bit guilty, the couple furtively make plans to
repeat their outing the next week, but this time the doctor, who fills in once
a week at the local hospital for a friend, does not show up until Laura is at
the tearoom at the train station, where he hurriedly explains his absence as
his train, traveling in the opposite direction as hers, arrives. The two again
plan an outing the next week.
Their next venture together, a comical boating trip downstream, quickly
develops into a furtive relationship, in which they both admit their love for
one another. When they take a drive into the country on this penultimate
meeting, however, he purposely misses his train, intending to stay at his doctor-friend's
flat, into which he invites her. She refuses, returning to the station and her
voyage back to Milford, but at the very last moment, rushes from her train,
running through the rain to the flat in which she has left Alec. At almost the
same instant she arrives, however, the friend returns early,
so that she is forced to rush out the back entrance, ashamed for what has
Realizing the impossibility of their relationship, and the dark
consequences arising in both their relationships with their spouses, he
announces upon their final meeting that he will be traveling with his family to
Africa, and will never see her again. Painfully, they sit together in the
tearoom—which, in fact, has been the very first scene of the film—awaiting
perhaps a tender goodbye, until one of Laura's chattering, suburban friends
enters, and the two are unable to say anything. When Alec's train arrives he
has no option but to tenderly squeeze her shoulder before disappearing forever,
Laura rushing out of the tearoom as another train passes, possibly intending
suicide to squelch what she describes:
I had no thoughts at all, only
an overwhelming desire not to
feel anything ever again.
She returns, however, to the tearoom,
riding home with her incessantly chatting friend to suffer out the night, as
she mentally repeats the events to her seemingly unaware husband, as he studies
a crossword puzzle. As they are about to go up to bed, he approaches her:
Fred Jesson: You've been a long
Laura Jesson. Yes.
Fred Jesson: Thank you for coming
back to me.
So this tale of guilt for an
imaginative, if not actual, sexual digression ends.
Perhaps in the immediate postwar context of English and American life,
wherein returning soldiers might have at least wondered about the faithfulness
of their wives during their absence, this all meant something. Lean seems focus
to play on the chastity of Laura despite her duplicity and her would-be
faithlessness. The lure ofillicit sex seems
perfectly balanced with the draws of home and hearth.
Yet the dramatization of these events, accompanied by the lush
romanticism of Sergei Rachmanioff's Paino Concerto No. 2, seems almost goofy,
as if some high drama where being played out through perfectly ordinary events.
As Laura herself describes her condition, she is almost hysterical about
feelings that "can't last."
This misery can't last. I must
remember that and try to control myself.
Nothing lasts really. Neither
happiness nor despair. Not even life lasts
very long. There'll come a time
in the future when I shan't mind about
this anymore, when I can look
back and say quite peacefully and cheer-
fully how sill I was.
But she does not want to forget, but to
remember, for Alec is clearly the superior of the two men in her life, just as
we suspect (without ever being allowed to see her) that Laura is a better
choice for his love than Alec's wife. At least, Alec is allowed to have an
adventure; he is on his way, after all, to Africa, while Laura must remain in
the little community of Milford with no real actions behind the passion she has
inwardly felt. One almost feels she has been a bit betrayed by her creators,
having asked her to express such intense emotions for no sensual rewards. What
is there even that she might be allowed to remember?
The film, accordingly, has riled up for both its central character and
its audience feelings that are never fulfilled, transforming the cinema from
being a true romance or even melodrama into merely a symbol of one. It's so
hard to get excited, I am afraid, over a symbol. One has to ask, what is all the
fuss about? Although Laura may have temporarily been caught up in an
"overwhelming desire," this viewer, at least, is thoroughly
Vertov (writer and director) Человек
с киноаппаратом(Man with a Movie Camera) / 1929
by Douglas Messerli
Vertov's film begins with a written
The film Man with a Movie Camera represents
AN EXPERIMENTATION IN THE
of visual phenomena
WITHOUT THE USE OF
WITHOUT THE HELP OF A
WITHOUT THE HELP OF THEATRE
(a film without actors,
without sets, etc.)
This new experimentation
work by Kino-Eye is directed towards the
creation - ABSOLUTE
KINOGRAPHY - on the basis of its complete separation from the
language of theatre and literature.
Vertov had randomly shot over 1,775 shots, employing
his wife Elizaveta Svilova to cut and piece them together as a representation
of a day in the life of a city (in this case, Odessa) in 1929.
Certainly Man with a Movie Camera is
intentionally experimental, using numerous techniques from double exposures,
slow motion, freeze frames, split screens, close-ups, and long tracking shots
to what is described as Dutch angles, a tilt of the camera to the side creating
vertical lines at an angle to the frame.
certainly cannot describe this documentary as being without narrative. It
begins, in fact, with the above manifesto as a kind prologue before showing,
from within, a movie house, as the crowd enters, the seats seeming to
automatically fall from upright position to the horizontal in long rows. The
crowd is seated, a curtain rises, and an orchestra is poised to begin as a
short stasis creates tension before the conductor brings down his baton on the
Alloy Orchestra, a group which creates not only a driving rhythmic music but
incorporates sounds such as sirens, crowd noise, the cries of babies and much
The narrative is made immediately apparent, as a woman is seen sleeping
upon a bed, an alarm clock blares, and another woman sits up to wash her face
and change into her dress. Although Vertov's work begins rather slowly, it
quickly picks up a speed that drives the numerous daily routines, from
traveling to work by bus, train, streetcar and other modes of transportation to
the masses' arrival into the heart of the city where they begin their numerous
daily routines that take us into the late afternoon when the host of figures
engage in multiple entertainments, including theater, sunbathing, and various
engagements in sport events.
At the center of this narrative is the central character, an almost
manic cameraman (Mikhail Kaufman) who with camera in hand hops upon various
forms of transportation, climbs bridges, and mounts machines, tracking scenes
from below and on high as he risks his life to capture energy of
But, of course, we know that despite the
cameraman's busy demeanor that there is yet another camera trained on him, and
that, in fact, the film is not just a movie about a "man with a movie
camera," but is a more self-referential film, a movie about a movie maker.
The stars of this narrative are the cinematographer, Vertov himself, and the
tool he uses to accomplish the task. At one point the camera seems to actually
come alive, taking itself apart and reassembling its own being. At another
moment we witness the mad camera man atop his own camera. And again and again,
while the masses go about their daily chores, the cameraman and his camera race
across the screen to track the actions of the Soviet folk it—again mostly in a
pretense—"secretly" shoots. This is not exactly candid camera,
however, for although Vertov is said to have distracted several of crowds from
the fact that they were being filmed, the very outsized version of his machine
surely encouraged some of his figures to pose for the camera, or, to put it
another way, to "act."
Except for the statement of no intertitles, accordingly, Vertov's
manifesto seems to ignore what it claims to have accomplished, creating instead
a kind of theatrical narrative whose actors are the cameraman and his camera
among a cast of thousands of extras. No matter, the film is still today one of
the most remarkable documentaries ever made, long ahead of its time using
techniques that influenced 20th and 21st-century filmmaking.
If at times Man with a Movie
Camera, particularly near the end, seems—as Vertov's critics had
argued—gimmicky and even manipulative, overall the work is a remarkable
achievement, representing as it does a vast landscape of pulsing city life.
Angeles, March 21, 2012
Vertov and Elizaveta Svilova (directors) Tri
geroinia (Three Heroines) / 1938,
the print I saw was at The Hammer Museum’s Billy Wilder Theater on March 24th,
If Vertov’s Man
with a Movie Camera is an exciting mélange of cinematic experimentations,
his and his wife’s Three Heroines is
a rather straight-forward, at time amateurish, propagandistic tribute, less to
the three heroines of its title, than to Stalin and the Soviet system.
is true that Vertov and Svilova, true to their beliefs, did not use voice-overs
or devise numerous acted out scenes for their documentary. Indeed Vertov’s more
radical methods were now devalued by the Soviet film heads. Accordingly, this
film was little seen in the Soviet Union and completely unknown to the rest of
The three heroines are
air pilots Raskova, Osipenko, and Grisodubova, who attempted to make a first
nonstop trans-Siberian flight. They failed, crashing into the Soviet taiga, and
for several days their whereabouts were unknown.
however, insisted upon detailed searches and, eventually the three were
discovered alive and still in good health. The irony is that this threesome
came to be better known having failed than they might have had they succeeded
in their mission. After mending, the women called home to their husbands and
children—their joyful communications caught by the documentarians camera in
some of the moving scenes of the film—before they were taken by train on the
long journey back to Moscow. Along the way, the three made numerous stops, the
woman laden with medals and flowers, presenting speeches proclaiming the
greatness of the Soviet system and the beloved protection of Stalin. Unlike the
West’s neglect of Amelia Earhart, they argue, the Soviet system cares about its
would-be heroes and all its citizens, of which their salvation is an example.
about the third or fourth such speech even the most ardent viewer grows weary,
and the constant repetition of a song of these tiaga-trotting women,
alternating with praises of the USSR—the major link between their picaresque
travels—rather than charming the viewer, drills the ditty into his head.
Certainly, there are lovely moments, and the imposing views of small
Soviet villages are often fascinating as Vertov’s and Svilova’s camera remains
in near-constant motion. But this time, without many cinematic tricks, the
document seems uneventful and flat. Long live the Soviet people and their great
protector Stalin and Soviet Commisars!
Dunne (screenplay, based on a novel by R. A. Dick), Joseph L. Mankiewicz
(director) The Ghost and Mrs. Muir /
a well-made romantic melodrama, The Ghost
and Mrs. Muir would hardly be worth talking about without its three
remarkable leads, Gene Tierney, Rex Harrison, and George Sanders, and even then
there’s not a great deal to write home about. Yet this comic tear-inducing film
is strangely interesting just because of its nearly impossible structure.
Briefly I’ll recount Phillip Dunne’s
simple screenplay based on the novel by R. A Dick. Raising up her daughter in
her mother-in-law’s house after the death of her husband, Lucy Muir (Gene
Tierney) decides to go it on her own: over the objections of both Angelica (the
mother-and-law) and Eva, her sister-in-law Lucy takes her small inheritance,
their family maid Martha Huggins (Edna Best), and daughter (Natalie Wood) and
moves to a seaside residence, Gull Cottage, to live in semi-isolation. The
rental agency tries to dissuade her from moving into Gull, since—as we soon
find out—it seems to be haunted by its former owner, Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex
Harrison), a former sea captain who is said to have committed suicide.
Despite the ghost’s lame attempts to
scare the new tenant off, Lucy stands firm, determined to stay put. When the
small payments she has been receiving stop, the mine in which her husband had invested having gone bust, the Captain
dictates the unvarnished adventures of his life to her, she typing them up,
putting them in order, and selling them as Blood
and Swash to a London publisher fond of sea tales.
During the writing sessions, inevitably,
Lucy and the ghost have fallen in love, both realizing that it is an impossible
situation; even the Captain admits that she should find a “real” man, and
disappears from her life.
Captain Daniel Gregg: You
must make your own life amongst the
living and, whether you
meet fair winds or foul, find your own way
to harbor in the end.
Lucy’s new love interest turns out to be
children’s writer, Miles Fairley (George Saunders) who writes under the name of
Uncle Neddy. He visits her by the seaside, and she travels to London to visit
him, there encountering his unexpected wife and hurrying off the moment she
makes the painful discovery, the wife admitting that it has not been the first
So ends this pleasant fantasy. The only
problem is that the film still has more than a third of a reel left! What to do
with the rest of the time?
Director Joseph Mankiewicz and writer
Philip Dunne obviously had no clue, using that space for a long series of “time
passes” sequences, as Lucy walks the beach through sun and storm, night and
day, a signpost inscribed with her daughter, Anna’s name (facing in to the
shore, instead of out to sea) gradually sinking into the sand. Were it not for
Bernard Herrmann’s lush orchestral imitation of rolling waves, it would be
nearly unbearable. As it is, the film has grown tedious enough, as the years pass and pass,
that we are absolutely delighted with the sudden visitation of the now grown up
Anna, her new beau in hand.
In a mother-daughter conversation, Anna
admits that she too, as a young girl, had fallen in love with Captain Gregg, of
whom Lucy is now convinced has been only a thing of their imagination. Even so,
she declares, she has her memories, something the audience, by this time, has
Left alone once more, Lucy continues to
age, dying in her favorite chair, freed, now that she is also a ghost, to join
Captain Gregg for, one presumes, eternity, which the audience might feel it has
If only the Captain had hung around a
little longer—as he did in the later television series—it all might have been
Goden and Jean Renoir (writers, based on the novel by Rumer Goden), Jean Renoir
(director) The River (Le Fleuvre) / 1951
In many ways, Renoir’s great film The River behaves somewhat like a
traditional film. There is a plot, for example—borrowed from Rumer Goden’s
fiction of the same name—centered around a happy Anglo-Indian family, immersed
in Indian life and religion. Renoir portrays that world, in beautiful color, as
almost a kind of Edenic life, where The Father (Esmond Knight), the head of a
Jute company, and The Mother (Nora Swinburne) overseeing five daughters and a
young son, along with a nanny and other servants. This Eden not only
encompasses their beautiful house and yard, but extends to the village around
them and particularly The Ganges, the holy river around which most of the local
activity is based. Both this family's and their neighbor’s lives are highly
involved with the Hindu traditions surrounding them.
this Eden comes a kind of Adam and Eve in the forms of Mr. John’s (Arthur
Shields) daughter, Melanie (Radha), who looks like her Indian mother, and the
neighbor’s cousin, Captain John (Thomas E. Breen), an American soldier who has
lost his leg in battle. With their appearance the young girls of house next
door now have a romantic model in Melanie and a focus for their coming-of-age
fantasies in the handsome Captain. In particular, the gangly Harriet (Patricia
Walters) and her more mature friend Valerie (Adrienne Corri) vie for the
attentions of the listless Captain, while Melanie becomes torn between her
distant relative and a local Indian boy.
We observe these
interrelationships, as well as become educated in the local customs and
community traditions, through the eyes of Harriet, who wants to be a writer and
shares her aspirations and romantic achievements with the Captain. But it is
the red-headed Valerie who most attracts the Captain’s eye, as the two play
flirtations that she is not ready to act on, and which, in turn, painfully hurt
Harriet, particularly when she observes them kissing—a kiss, she imagines,
might have first been hers.
Mother and Nanny wisely watch over these teenage fixations, knowing all too
well that they are necessary for maturation. When Harriet’s young brother,
however, becomes attracted to the movements of a nearby cobra, eventually being
killed by its bite, these minor melodramas turn into tragedy, as Harriet, who
knew of cobra’s existence, suffers both rejection by the Captain and now the
guilt of her brother’s death. Attempting to put an end to her life, she takes a
out a skiff into the dark night currents. Fortunately, she is observed by
Indian boaters, who follow and save her, the Captain returning her home.
Although they have lost
their son, the family soon can rejoice with the birth of a new child—another
daughter! And so, the end begins anew. Life is renewed for the entire family
and community, just as it is expressed in Hindu thought.
for all this “story,” Renoir’s film is not so much a tale of the family as it
is a kind of panoramic documentary of Indian life. By far, the greatest number
of images are not focused on the purposely amateurish cast and their quiet joys
and sorrows as it is on the market place, the jute factory, the holy shrines,
and, most importantly, the river and river life.
Filmmaker Satyajit Ray, who worked with Renoir on this film, criticized The River as being too centered upon its
Anglo figures; but I would argue that the story, lovely as it is, hardly
matters alongside of Renoir’s engagement with Indian culture and landscape. A
kite, images of Kali, Indian dances, piles of jute, heaps of vegetables,
capons, cobras, small containers of oil, bowls of milk, and the bronzed bodies
of Indians matter far more in this movie than do the comings and goings of the
Anglo family and friends. The colors of this landscape are one of the central
focuses of the film: the reds of the rivers, the greens, blues, yellows, and
white of toys, dresses, and floor paintings are the true subject of Renoir’s
As critics have noted,
Renoir was personally effected by his Indian sojourn, he himself admitting that
he could talk endlessly about his year-long experiences there.Clearly The
River is different from almost every film he previously made. The high wit
and social commentary of a work such as Rules
of the Game is completely missing in this gentle document. Forward action
has been transformed into repeated gestures of survival. Harriet cries out to
her mother after her brother’s death: "How can you carry on as if nothing
had happened?" To which her Mother replies: “We don't We just carry
too does Renoir back away from human evaluation, focusing instead on the simple
rhythms of life. Bodily movement and dance are also at the heart of The River. While Renoir’s Indian
characters are almost always in motion, gracefully carrying their burdens upon
their heads, steering their boats into port, joyfully swimming, mesmerizing a
snake, celebrating the marriage ceremony in traditional movements, using their
hands and feet to say hello or goodbye, Renoir’s Anglo folk are gangly and clumsy:
they spend much of their afternoons flat on their backs, asleep on the lawn;
the one-legged captain can hardly dance and loses his balance; the child,
imitating the snake-charmer, is destroyed. If Renoir has kept the plot of
Godden’s Anglo story, he has made a film that is thoroughly Indian in its
rhythms and hues.