View Full Version : Jean Renoir's The River (1951)

04-24-2004, 07:01 PM
1951 - Directed by Jean Renoir, screenplay by Jean Renoir, based on the novel by Rummer Godden.

The back story to the making of this movie is a good one. The producer, Kenneth McEldowney, was a successful florist and real estate agent in LA. His wife, an employee of MGM, was involved in a project that McEldowney found particuarly distasteful. He had little patience for studio junk, told her so, and she challenged him to try and make something better.

So McEldowney sold the house and his business and teamed up with Renoir who had lost his way with some Hollywood productions.

The film is a masterpiece, shot in technicolor in India, with a mix of footage from sets and from real life. It is at once a historical record of India and a very compelling work of fiction built around a Brittish family living there, their town/neighbors, and a wayward American soldier who comes to visit.

What appears to be a simple vehicle proves to be an infinitely complex amalgam of eastern and western thought woven beautifully into a universal parable. The characters fall inward on the swirling elements that are so much larger than they are, and we as viewers cannot help but do the same.

The print that was screened (Anthology Film Archives in NY) is a rarely shown print from the collection of Martin Scorcese. It will be made into a Criterion Collection DVD, and it is not to be missed.

As a nice end to McEldowney's story, the movie opened to great success. According to imdb:

It opened in New York to a record 34-week run at reserved-seat prices and was on several 10-best movie lists in 1951, and grossed more than $16 million. [McEldowney] then returned to real estate and never made another movie, because, he said "I did it once. I proved my point."

Hollywood could not have scripted a better ending.

oscar jubis
04-26-2004, 02:11 AM
Words fail to convey how I feel about Jean Renoir and The River is a personal favorite. Thanks for the post, including news of its restoration and dvd release, and the interesting backstory.

Chris Knipp
05-01-2004, 06:49 PM
This was a movie that influenced me as a youth. I went home and did Indian festival decorations on pieces of cardboard and dreamed of trips to India which I have taken only through watching Sajayit Ray. The dance sequence particularly impressed me and the movie helped me to learn who Jean Renoir was. His son later taught me Anglo-Saxon poetry at Berkeley. Recently a videotape of The River seemed to me a bit faded-looking, so a redone DVD would be very welcome. The River is an example of a movie about an exotic place in which the western filmmaker doesn't condescend or get too fussy but lets you see how powerfully the local culture is always there even for the foreigners, as I experienced myself with living in Egypt.

06-19-2004, 12:07 PM
I'm a little ignorant on this one I imagine but just realized that Jean Renoir was Pierre Auguste's son... Thats amazing. That explains his visual ability I'd say.

Cheers from Japan where jet lag has me wide awake and typing at 1:00 AM.


09-06-2004, 04:41 PM
(I've posted this in another forum, hoping to generate dialogue about this, one of my favorite films)

I've rewatched the River a few times in the past week or so... I think it's now my favorite Renoir. I'd seen it a couple years back at a friend's house and immediately lost interest when I started noticing (what I thought were at the time) cliches. I didn't know much about the filmmaker and thought he was ignoring the destruction colonialism had caused in India. Of course I'm beginning to think a little differently... I'm certain he does not hold the colonialist bourgeoisie in high regard. Almost every time the father or mother (tellingly noted as only The Father and The Mother in the credits) spout some advice, with demure british certainty, it's countered either cinematically or verbally with a well placed eastern philosophy. For instance, the scene in which Mr. John waxes on about how children are like animals, better equipped to enjoy life than adults, is followed by a scene in which The Father and The Mother practically argue with their daughter Harriet about how she should grieve (a sentiment the film treats rightly as ludicrous). Also, I originally had some contempt with how women seemed to be relegated to "breeding" in the film... but now I see that this is juxtaposed with damaged men. Legless and eyeless workaholic males dominate the lead roles. Perhaps this is a tug at sexual evolution exhibited through complex socialization... obvious hunter/gatherer gender roles that have played a part in our cultural identity before we started walking on two legs.

Also a few things struck me as odd... the three girls (Harriet, Melanie, and Valerie) and the three ships... could these be symbols of the three "main" religions in India (Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam)? If not, I think it's a pretty large coincidence... however, if so, I think it's a very interesting way of alluding to this (though pretty abstract and certainly a reach) inexplicitly and keeping some mystery to the film's actual religious preference (I believe the film to be more Taoist than any of the three religions mentioned).

Another odd thing... I wonder if Renoir is using the contrast between Melanie and Valerie to attack overblown cinema romance. This stands out the most in how they deal with Harriet (one wishy-washy and emotional... read Hollywood, the other thoughtful) and the scene in which she kisses Captain John. For his chase of Valerie a traditional indian chase song is playing, but for Valerie's moving in on him the soundtrack cues up something certainly more western and orchestral (maybe I'm reading too much into this but possibly the joke is reenforced later on by Captain John smirking at Harriet's mention that he had kissed her and Valerie).

I also think this film should be mentioned more often along the lines of the early fifties "transcendental" films (Diary of a Country Priest... Late Spring and Early Summer... Ordet). It ,along with Kinugasa's Gate of Hell (another early fifties color film that springs to mind for shallow technicolor reasons) are both Janus titles in need of a Criterion DVD release (I'm aware that The River has been rumored as a future release, but then why the hell has it taken 6-8 years?).

On another Renoir note, is anyone aware if a director's cut of A Woman On The Beach exists? Has this been found? Or better yet, restored?


11-11-2004, 10:14 AM
Hey Harri,
What a film eh? This is a gem. Im adding your comments to a little discussion we had about it a few months back.

Take a look. Thanks for reminding us of a great one.

Chris Knipp
11-11-2004, 03:46 PM
Certainly some very keen observations about The River by harri. Makes me want to see it again. I would certainly want to crib a bit from harri if I were to write a review of it. Renoir is one of those profound chaps whose films one might understand differently and better when and if one grows more mature. I haven't quite shucked off my adolescent crush on it, which now seems adolescent -- but haven't seen it again for several years. Maybe the PFA will have a Renoir series and show it, that would be best. I'm sick of movies on telly, Criterion or whatever. I imagine in analyzing the film I'd want to read Rumer Godden's novel, which was highly praised. I'm reminded that Renoir said this was his favorite of all his films. Artists aren't always reliable on that -- witness Jorge Luis Borges saying his gaucho stories are his best stuff -- but it's worth considering.

01-10-2005, 11:39 PM
The River was one of the first films I saw in film school. I don't believe a Renoir ever produced anything but art. Viva la France!

02-17-2005, 06:44 PM
There is an excellent article on this wisest of all film makers,
& this great film & others on the senses of cinema site down here in Oz.

oscar jubis
02-19-2005, 02:04 AM
Thanks for introducing folks to this wonderful website. I think it's the best site to learn about world cinema. It's an excellent resource. For info on dvd releases, I like mastersofcinema.

02-20-2005, 02:22 PM
I didnt realize sensesofcinema was an Australian site. How nice to know. A deeper sense of respect for an already cool country!

oscar jubis
07-11-2005, 03:23 PM
Whan I fell in love with The River, during a theatre screening 20 years ago, its colors didn't look nearly as vibrant as they do in this Criterion dvd. Jean Renoir is my favorite film director and I'm glad some of his best films are being restored for future generations to enjoy.
The River is based on an autobiographical novel written by Rummer Godden, who's first novel, "Black Narcissus", is also the source of a wonderful film. India, and the Ganges river, can be viewed as The River's main character, given how much time Renoir invests describing and exploring its culture. Moreover, the impact of the environment on the human characters is constant and palpable. Three teen girls coming-of-age. The rich and impetuous Valerie; the conflicted, Western-educated, bi-racial Melanie; and the inexperienced, sensitive Harriet, Godden's stand-in. Cap. John, a catalytic character, a young American who lost a leg in WWII and feels like a stranger anywhere. A handsome man whose persona incorporates traits from all three girls, most obviously Melanie, with whom he shares a type of existential crisis, a failure to accept aspects of the self.
Harri is right when he identifies The River as a "transcendental film". Renoir has made it timeless by his approach and his focus. As Harri has pointed out, the commentary on Colonialism is there, between the lines. But The River is mostly about things that transcend time and place. It will never grow old.

"Three boats, three girls simultaneously reach the central point where all contradictions cancel each other out, where death and birth, giving and refusing, possessing and taking away, have the same value and the same meaning. He who forgets himself finds himself; he who gives in, triumphs. Harriet's adventure is the story of a death which is also a birth; that is of a metamorphosis, of an avatar. Thus the woodcutter becomes God; Krishna becomes the woodcutter. This film, so rich in metaphor, is ultimately only about metaphor itself, or absolute knowledge"
(Jacques Rivette)

"The River is the Rules of the Game of Renoir's second period. Yet this time Renoir's achievement rests on considerably different techniques. He substitutes a pictorial stability in which scenes are framed only once. There is not a single pan or dolly shot in the entire film. Here he seems interested only in showing things precisely as they are. Even when he falls back on traditional montage, using many shots, as in the siesta scene, there is no hint of expressionist symbolism. It does not for a second destroy the concrete reality of the moment. In The River the screen no longer exists; there is nothing but reality. Not pictorial, not theatrical, not anti-expressionist, the screen simply disappears in favor of what it reveals."
(Andre Bazin)

Chris Knipp
07-11-2005, 04:38 PM
I never knew this movie was so highly thought of by the French cineastes. I wouldn't rhapsodize about it quite so freely, but it was magic for me when I saw it quite young. I'm so glad to hear the new copy for home viewing has vibrant color again. That was certainly an important element. You must realize that then, color was more vibrant, objectively so, sometimes, and also, for one thing, because one so often saw black and white and the contrast was so great. Color movies often gave me a headache. But this made me want to go to India. I never have, though.