A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The River (Jean Renoir, 1951)

The near-hallucinatory vividness of Technicolor was seemingly made for Jean Renoir, the son of the Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, but this film was his first use of the process. It's the more remarkable because he was working with his nephew (and Pierre-Auguste's grandson), Claude Renoir, the cinematographer, and neither director nor photographer was particularly experienced in shooting landscape, especially in the country of India, which is the real star of the film. The River has a distinctly Western attitude toward the country, viewing it through the eyes of its British residents. It's based on the experiences of Rumer Godden, the English writer who spent her childhood in India. Her screenplay, co-written with Jean Renoir, is about the tensions between cultures, using the Ganges, the titular river, as a symbol of both the eternal and the mutable. Ravishingly beautiful as the film is, it suffers from some major weaknesses in casting. Its central character, the teenager Harriet, is played by Patricia Walters, a nonprofessional who made no subsequent films and never quite seems at ease before the camera. As Capt. John, the American recovering from the loss of a leg during the war, Thomas E. Breen doesn't have the kind of charisma that would seem to have Harriet, her older friend Valerie (Adrienne Corri), and her Eurasian neighbor (Radha Burnier) falling over themselves to attract his attention. (Breen, incidentally, was both a real amputee from a war wound and the son of the enforcer of the Production Code, Joseph I. Breen.) But for those willing to overlook its flaws, which also include a lack of narrative urgency, The River rewards sympathetic attention and, as a film by a Frenchman about the English in India, stands as a landmark in postwar international filmmaking.

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