Martin Scorsese ranks The River up with The Red Shoes as the most beautiful color film of all time. Scorsese also says that he watches it about three or four times a year. (He first saw it when he was in third grade. His dad took him to see it in the movie theatre). Scorsese was largely responsible for the restoration of this film (2004, I think) and it’s now out on Criterion. Directed by Jean Renoir, the great French director, who had bought the rights to the book The River, a memoir by Rumer Godden about her childhood in India. Renoir, responsible for making one of the greatest films ever made, The Rules of the Game, floundered a little bit in the 1940s, he couldn’t get anything financed. He was adrift. But he fell in love with the source material. The film found financing through a florist, of all things, who also loved the book. Florist put up the cash (not enough to get any movie stars in it, but enough to take the cast and crew to India). The prospect of shooting on location in India fascinated Renoir, and the prospect of shooting in color intrigued him. He had never shot in color. Also, there had never been a color movie shot in India. There were all kinds of challenges that appealed to Renoir. (Satyajit Ray was an assistant director on the film, a fascinating dovetail.)
For a while, major stars were considered for some of the roles, and Marlon Brando was discussed for the role of Captain John, the one-legged soldier who causes all the young girls to fly into a hormonal tizzy. It’s interesting to contemplate what the film would be with Brando in the role. No offense to Brando, at all, but it would have become the Marlon Brando Show. His sense of isolation and pain would have been so palpable that it might have tipped the movie off-balance. who knows. It didn’t happen, at any rate. They didn’t have the money. They ended up going with Thomas Breen, (son of Joseph Breen, Mr. Hays Code Enforcer). Thomas Breen is not an actor, and it shows, but he has actually lost a leg, and so the performance, while awkward, seems so real, so THERE. There’s a devastating scene where he slips and his fake leg splays out behind him at a terrible angle. It’s horrifying. (Scorsese talks about the effect that scene had on him as a child in the Criterion interview.)
If I had seen The River when I was 12, 13 years old … I would have been completely LOST in the fantasy of it. I would have LIVED the movie. It’s great for kids. It’s about kids. AND, even better, it’s about GIRL kids. The British family in question is filled with girls, all running around barefoot, in frocks, spying on the grownups, keeping diaries, swinging on swings, etc. I was already captivated by Rikki Tikki Tavi, and Kipling’s other short stories, and its glimpses of another culture seen through a child’s eyes. I was a tiny bit obsessed with The Flame Trees of Thika when I was a kid, which was a mini-series that I watched with my parents, starring Hayley Mills (as a grown-up!) and featuring a young girl dealing with her life as the child of basically colonial imperialists of the British variety. I believe they were coffee planters in Kenya. British people, with their victrolas and wardrobes and doilies and china, going off to live in Africa, in Burma, in wherever. So The River would have been a heady brew for me as a kid. It deals with Life as seen through the eyes of kids.
The life as depicted in The River is isolated, and while India makes a huge impression (the adult voice narrating it explains to us the various Hindu festivals, what the river itself symbolized, etc.), what makes MORE of an impression is the advent of one-legged Dr. John in the neighboring compound. Every one, from the 16-year-old, to the 12-year-old, to the Indian nanny, fall madly in love with him and basically lose their minds, running after him, giving him flowers, aching and swooning over him. Poor guy. He basically has to HIDE to get a little bit of peace. It’s all quite funny. There’s one very funny scene when the girls’ father (played by Eamond Knight) sits down to chat with his pregnant wife (she’s carrying his sixth child!). He looks around at all of his mopey daughters, drooping across the verandah, and says, “Our girls are all acting like Tragic Queens … this is ridiculous.” The mother, beautifully played by Nora Swinburne, takes a philosophic view. In a way, their collective love affair with Dr. John is practice for real life, so it’s best to just let them them all mope about until they get it out of their system.
There’s an episodic quality to The River. You can feel Renoir’s love of the book. It’s broken up into separate and distinct chapters. There’s the storyline of Melanie, the teenage girl next door, who is half Indian and half white and feels out of place in both cultures. She and Dr. John, also an alien because of his one leg, find themselves drawn to one another. Melanie is played by Radha, who has a thoughtful and deep persona, something that is strange, watchable, and honest. She also, in a fantasy sequence about a fictional marriage, gets to do a traditional Indian dance, and she is phenomenal, physically. Renoir films her in full body shot, and with the wide screen we see her moving on a horizontal line, making stark shapes, exciting, urgent.
I suppose if you’re used to more of a story, The River might seem like a bit of a trifle. Roger Ebert, in his review, talks about how a movie like The River requires you to calm the hell down in order to actually perceive it, and succumb to it. This is very accurate. Something tragic does occur, late in the film, but it is just one of many episodes. Basically, the film is a loving and relaxed look at one family, its rhythms, its fights, its apologies and revelations … It’s about adolescence and how painful it is. Renoir was always interested in the small, the everyday, the casual. He liked human behavior. The Rules of the Game comes with such a weighty reputation that when I first saw it at the Music Box in Chicago I was delighted by how hilarious it was, how all of those crazy people in that chateau emerged as true madcap eccentrics, beautifully portrayed, with no sense of “acting” at all. None whatsoever. It’s a farce, really. But with a deep undercurrent of uneasiness which cannot be denied. The cataclysm of WWII approaches. It is the shadow under which the farcical mayhem operates. But beyond all of that, what you get is the beauty/absurdity/tenderness of humanity itself. That’s what interested Renoir. And that’s what interested him in The River.
It’s a film that flows (the structure coming from the river itself, so often mentioned in the film). It’s a film that is circular. The river flows on, the seasons cycle, we have spring, we have birth, we have death. We have the death of childhood, the birth of womanhood. We have the re-birth of Dr. John (which seems incomplete, and that’s appropriate, because life isn’t neat), and we have the awakening of Melanie. But there is no resolution. Nothing is “settled” at the end, because that’s not how life is. That’s not how Renoir saw life. Life goes on. We move on with our griefs, our new understanding, there will be other joys in the future, other sorrows. In a film that takes place in India, India is almost incidental. India itself is a fascination for the girls in the family, but they also take it for granted. It is where they live. It is their context. They accept what they see, and do not judge it as “exotic”. Children accept their circumstances and greet difference with innocence. Renoir had an innocence about him, he was open to humanity’s beauty, he was interested in the small moments that make up life, that bind us together, that form relationships.
There’s a beautiful shot that comes very near the end, where four of the girls in the family sit on the front steps in the bright sun reading letters that have just arrived. They are all engrossed, and then, from the house behind, comes the sudden sound of a baby crying. Their new sibling has arrived. As one, all of the girls stand, and turn to look at the house. As one, all of the girls race off into the house, and as one, they all drop their letters, the pages floating down the steps.
It’s such a beautiful shot. It has no meaning. It’s just that Life sometimes looks like that, life sometimes has poetry to it, and Renoir’s camera captures it.
And yes, the colors are overwhelming. Scorsese also observes that some of the scenes, with the girls running through lush gardens in their colored frocks, are reminiscent of the paintings of Jean Renoir’s famous father. Beautiful.
I love this film.