Winner of the International Award at the 1951 Venice Film Festival.
Though Jean Renoir had investigated the relationships between the culture of native peoples and the land (or water) that sustains and alternatively threatens their existence, "The River" marked several changes in Renoir's own career.
After the release of "Woman On The Beach" - a jumbled, studio-bound film noir, adversely affected by surgical edits after bad preview screenings - Renoir chose to revisit the land/people marriage in Rumer Godden's autobiographical novel, "The River." In his 1985 autobiography, art director Eugene Lourie recalled how Renoir had planned to shoot background plates in India and the rest of the movie at a Mississippi location - until an enterprising Hollywood florist, Ken McEldowney, got wind of the project, and wanted to make "The River" the first of four movies to be shot entirely on location.
The production woes that plagued the first Technicolor film made in India are extensively documented in a series of audio interviews with one-time movie producer McEldowney. Additional text notes bracket the historical materials in Criterion's superlative release, and director/film buff Martin Scorsese also appears in a sizable appendix, describing the sharp impression "The River" made on him, while still a youth in New York City.
The archived trailer reveals the distributor's aim in selling the movie as another Renoir 'masterpiece,' yet United Artists also shuffled scenes to create a false sense of a man caught up in several steamy relationships; the implication is hot sex, but the reality is a story about emotionally bruised and naïve people struggling to connect under varying degrees of physical and emotional displacement.
Freed from process shots and exterior sets within large Hollywood soundstages, a newly independent Renoir and his cameramen integrated a mix of travelogue panoramas, documentary montages, and fractured dramas; their attempt to evoke the stirrings and calm of the Ganges River, isn't wholly successful, but it explains the peculiarly dreamy quality of the film.
Like "The Red Shoes" and "Black Narcissus" (the latter film based on Godden's internationally successful novel), the mix of myth, cultural exotica, sexual tension, and unconventional Technicolor cinematography were key draws for Scorsese, and he defends the film as being far more than an idyllic reminiscences of an English girl interacting with locals, sheltered under the umbrella of British India.
Godden herself is seen in a slowly-paced, albeit visually rich documentary, from 1995. Revisiting India with her daughter for the first time in decades, Godden reveals herself to be more than the daughter of a Britisher; bucking familial expectations with her physicality and bullheaded determination, Godden's novels dealt with cultural taboos and characters deemed improper or embarrassing by the Establishment. Similar to her "River" characters, Godden herself never quite fit into either culture: a British single mother in love with Indian culture, the doc exploits her quandary as a traveler; never fully embraced by the English, nor Indians.
Criterion's DVD is loaded with plenty of archival goodies - including an intro segment with a deliciously idiosyncratic Renoir, interviewed by Jacques Rivette for a 20-film French TV retrospective - and lengthy essays in the colourful booklet.
Freed from the confines and exotic cliches imposed by Hollywood studios, "The River" marked a major career turn for Renoir and novice screenwriter Godden; it's still a strange mix of repressed conflicts and weirdly poetic dialogue, but the more humanistic depiction of native people sets the film apart from the usual tales of thuggery, tiger hunting, and indigenous, ignorant people blissfully happy in their servitude.
© 2005 Mark R. Hasan