Director: Jean Renoir
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists
India, the final years of the British Raj. An adult, unseen Harriet narrates a reflection upon her childhood. A middle class English family reside in a Bengal village. The father runs a jute mill, whilst the mother, assisted by an Indian nanny, runs the household, including seven children. Their idyllic existence, a combination of traditionally English and Indian influences and values, is turned upside down by the arrival of the cousin of their neighbour, Captain John. An American pilot who was severely injured in an unspecified conflict (perhaps the Second World War), he unwittingly becomes the object of attention and affection for three young girls; Harriet and Valerie from the English family, and Melanie, the Anglo-Indian daughter of their neighbour.
During this period of emotional turbulence, genuine tragedy strikes when a snake that he has attempted to charm kills Bobby, Harriet’s only brother. Harriet then attempts suicide in the treacherous evening current of the river because of her guilt about this incident and her perceived loss of Captain John to her older sister. Captain John saves her in time. Captain John’s real interest is in Melanie, but their differences are too insurmountable to overcome. After which, Captain John departs the village. Harriet learns the lesson that life must go on, much like the river must keep flowing.
One of the finest French film makers, Renoir’s career in his native country was interrupted by the Second World War. Having fled to the United States, his Hollywood career has been considered mostly uneven, although his 1945 film ‘The Southerner’ has its admirers; noted film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum amongst them. ‘The River’ was a new phase in Renoir’s career however. It was directly inspired by an interest in Indian culture, which can be seen in the enthusiasm of the English family towards native traditions and customs. More intriguingly perhaps, it was Renoir’s film colour film, but instead of merely coming to terms with a new technical innovation, Renoir uses Technicolor like few others directors previously had. By painting over natural objects and utilising intense post-production, Renoir provides an explosion of colour, perhaps best demonstrated in the Diwali festival with its fireworks and bright costumes. The aesthetical qualities of ‘The River’ compare favourably with the great Powell and Pressburger collaborations of the time, including ‘Black Narcissus’ (adapted from Rumer Godden, author of ‘The River’ and perhaps most closely ‘The Red Shoes’.
On the surface, ‘The River’ resembles an ordinary teenage coming of age tale. Three young girls are intrigued by the mysterious arrival of an American pilot to their village. Renoir certainly demonstrates a poignant and sympathetic attitude to the first pangs of adolescent love, with also coincides with and increases the insecurities of each of those involved. Harriet, a self-confessed ugly duckling finds it difficult to compete and compare with her more extroverted sister, Valerie. It is perhaps Valerie’s vivacity, which means her attempts to engage with Captain John are destined to come to nothing. Captain John has his own personal issues; an inability to come to terms with his disability and to reintegrate him back into mainstream society after the war has brought him to India. He finds it easier to empathise with those with a similar disposition, which explains his growing attraction towards Melanie. The daughter of an Irishman and a late Indian woman, she is born without caste and in constant conflict about her identity. Furthermore, this complex results in a growing resistance to Captain John despite his interest. In one moving and telling conversation, he asks, “Can I help you?” to which she responds, “Can anyone?” as if her issues cannot be resolved by anything or anybody.
Whilst the peaceful transition of English family to an Indian way of life and an easy sense of integration might constitute a degree of historical revisionism and promotion of colonialism as a benevolent arrangement, there is no doubt that Renoir feels a natural affinity with this world. He demonstrates a keen observation of traditional customs, and much like Renoir’s comedies, ‘The River’ has a distinctly lyrical feel. Harriet’s voiceover reveals that the traditions of these native families have existed for over a thousand years and her own interest in the native culture, which she writes about in her diary, reflects Renoir’s own understanding and appreciation. Having been an itinerant director for about a decade, separated from his own country and people, it is natural he should empathise so greatly with the film’s protagonists and also with India, as a spiritually uplifting environment. Renoir’s constant cuts towards shots of the river indicate that it has a life of its own and that its people have an intense spiritual and physical dependence upon it. The river itself perhaps no longer becomes just the title of the film but also its central character, as demonstrated by the poignant poem that Harriet reads in the film’s final moments – “the river runs, the round world spins…”. At the core of this poem is the belief that life must go on in spite of all struggles. For instance, immediately preceding this final scene is a Hindu celebration of a new season, of trees and flowers in bloom. This coincides with the birth of a new brother for Harriet, representing a fresh start for the family after Bobby’s death. The anticipation of this birth is shown by the three girls peering through gaps in a wall of marble, just as they did when Captain John initially arrived. This repeated motif possibly represents a new drama for the family to experience and that life has moved on after the arrival and departure of Captain John. ‘The River’ is a film simply about life, about its dramas and tribulations and the confidence to deal with them. It’s an uncomplicated message but very effective all the same.