Monday, March 19, 2012

Jean Renoir | The River

the end begins
by Douglas Messerli

Rumer 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.

    Into 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.

     Both 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.

     Yet, 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 meditation.

     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 on."

     So 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.

Los Angeles, March 17, 2012

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