Saturday, February 28, 2009

The River: Renoir's Pre-Bollywood Masterpiece

By Steve Evans
“The river runs, the round world spins. Dawn and lamplight, midnight, noon. Sun follows day; night, stars and moon.” ~ From the closing narration.

Master director Jean Renoir shot The River (1951), his first color film, on location in India. It is a gentle coming-of-age tale set during the waning years of the British Raj. Criterion presents a meticulous restoration of this glorious Technicolor film in a flawless digital transfer with an elegant package of extra features befitting a classic. The results are sublime.

And now for a bit of plot…
Le Fleuve (The River) unfolds through the eyes of Harriet (Patricia Walters), a quiet but wildly imaginative English teenager living with her family in the 1920s near the lush, green banks of the holy Bengal River. Like the river itself, the film flows at a leisurely pace as Harriet spends her days composing poetry and observing exotic Indian life over the garden wall surrounding the family home. She follows the daily rituals of the fishermen and workers at the jute factory managed by her father. Harriet enjoys happy afternoons with her friend Valerie (Adrienne Corri, below, right, now best remembered as the hapless wife of writer Mr. Alexander in A Clockwork Orange, a role she would play 20 years later). The girls indulge in make-believe, in the fanciful world of adolescence, narrated with poetic grace by a grown Harriet (voiceover by June Hillman) recalling her distant childhood. Harriet's older friend Melanie, just returned from school, wants to follow the cultural heritage of her late mother, an Indian who married a British colonial. Gentle housekeeper Nan watches over the girls, dispensing wisdom and superstition in equal measure while insects buzz over the flowers, workers chant on their way home from the factory, and the river flows as it has for centuries.

Into this idyll comes Captain John (Thomas E. Breen) a crippled veteran of an unspecified conflict (presumably World War I), who has rejected civilian life for the reflective culture of India. John comes to live with his widower cousin (Melanie's father) who lives near Harriet's family along the river. Smitten with this handsome, brooding soldier, Harriet delivers an invitation to celebrate Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, as a ruse to meet him. The retired captain’s quiet charm and brittle vulnerability strike a fanciful chord in the girls' young hearts. Soon Harriet, Valerie, and Melanie are competing for his affections and grappling with their first pangs of love.

With this deceptively simple tableau Renoir offers a compelling look at postcolonial India. Going deeper, he portrays the inevitable conflicts of social classes and, above all, the ineluctable cycle of the human condition—birth, life, love, death—set against the paradox of an ever-flowing river, seen here as both symbol of stability and metaphor for constant change.

Historical significance and context
A lyrical adaptation of Rumer Godden’s autobiographical novel, The River is a visual tour de force, deeply affecting and timeless in its multilayered charms. Renoir co-wrote the screenplay with Godden, whose own childhood growing up in India is recounted in a 1995 documentary produced for the BBC, included on this disc.

One of the great measures of the film’s success is Renoir’s dignified treatment of the native Indians, his insistence on authenticity, and his respect for Hindu tradition. The film pays reverential deference to the god Kali, whose eternal cycle of destruction and rebirth is mirrored in the narrative structure of the script, which is concerned with timeless themes of childhood, love, and death.

Prior to the production, Renoir said he wanted to make a film about India that featured neither tigers nor elephants. Renoir was weary of Hollywood’s stereotypical treatment of Indian culture in such admittedly classic adventure films as Gunga Din and The Lives of a Bengal Lancer. Renoir was going for something different. So he was, perhaps, unsurprised when Hollywood, where he began working in the 1940s, rebuffed the project and refused funding. After turning to independent financial sources, Renoir still failed to sign a major star to anchor the project, as no one was available who could commit to half a year of location work in India. So he began shooting with a cast of unknowns and amateurs, which resulted quite unexpectedly in tight sequences and rapid cutting rhythms. Renoir was a director accustomed to the fluidity of sustained shots and elaborate camera movements. Yet his approach to The River diverged by necessity from his usual working style. Although he was notoriously temperamental, Renoir’s genius still allowed him a degree of flexibility. So with expensive Technicolor film flying through the cameras and inexperienced performers in front of them, Renoir opted for short takes and a mostly stationary camera. One unforeseen consequence of this approach was the relative ease of shooting repeat takes (novice performers would tend to need multiple takes). The result is a masterpiece unlike anything Renoir had done before. Here, the unexpected alchemy of circumstance, material, and personnel imposed adaptation and improvisation on the creative process, forcing the master director to think in different directions. When the artist is challenged, often enough the result is challenging art.

Renoir's unerring eye for image and composition comes with a pedigree. The son of Impressionist painter Auguste Renoir, he started directing films during the silent era, occasionally financing his projects by selling off the works of his father, who died in 1919 (Auguste Renoir's The Blue River, above, left). Today Renoir's films are routinely listed among the greatest of all time, chief among them Les Règles du Jeu (Rules of the Game), a masterpiece of social satire that ridicules the French aristocracy on the eve of World War II. Even his lesser films are small miracles of the cinema, such as Boudu Sauvé des Eaux (Boudu Saved from Drowning, remade half a century later as Down and Out in Beverly Hills by Renoir devotee Paul Mazursky).

But The River represents a culmination of the themes that preoccupied the great French director throughout his cinematic career—class struggles, social inequities, and an abiding desire for a serene life. In the liner notes accompanying this superb disc, Renoir claims to have found his own inner peace while making the film under challenging conditions. Compounding the difficulties of a location shoot in the Orient with his premiere use of the Technicolor process and a cast of mostly amateurs, The River was also Renoir’s first film in English.

Renoir's nephew Claude produced the luminous Technicolor cinematography. Claude Renoir would go on to frame John Frankenheimer's The French Connection II and the James Bond adventure The Spy Who Loved Me, but in a 45-year career his work on The River remains unequaled. Here is a film that overwhelms the eyes.

The River is also notable for launching the career of director Satyajit Ray, who was Renoir's assistant on the picture. Now renowned as one of the great auteurs of 20th century cinema, Ray discovered a love of film after meeting Renoir and viewing the Italian classic Bicycle Thieves during a trip to London. Instrumental in the Bollywood movement that elevated India to prominence in world cinema, Ray directed 37 films and received an honorary Academy Award shortly before his death in 1992.

At the risk of tripping into babbling sycophancy, we may need to conjure up some unique superlatives to do justice both to The River and Criterion's expert restoration. Here, as with most of the films in its collection, Criterion continues to amaze. With the participation of the film's editor, George Gale, Criterion utilized a digital restoration system to remove thousands of scratches and particles of dirt and debris from the source materials before undertaking a high-definition transfer of the restored 35mm interpositive print. The film probably hasn’t looked this good since its original theatrical run. Criterion notes that the audio was re-mastered at 24 bits, using digital tools to reduce sound defects. The Dolby 1.0 mono directs almost exclusively to the center speaker when deploying 5.1 sound, although a broader soundstage is evident with two-channel playback, which Criterion recommends. There is real aesthetic pleasure to be had from watching this disc, reviewing the supplemental materials, and reading the accompanying 16-page color booklet filled with detailed liner notes and beautiful images from the film. Truly, this is a first-class presentation from Criterion, a name now synonymous with the absolute reference standard in DVD product.

Extras include a 2004 video interview with Martin Scorsese, who was instrumental in pushing forward the restoration effort through his work with the Film Foundation. Scorsese recalls the impact the film had on him as a nine-year-old boy. He also explores in some detail the techniques Renoir deployed in his quest for authenticity. As always, listening to Scorsese discuss a great film is a pleasure in itself. The video introduction by Renoir affords a rare glimpse of the director, relaxed and speaking with apparent candor about the film and how he came to make it. The footage suggests that Renoir was indeed transformed by his experiences on this project.

This lesser-known classic ranks on the short list of cinematic standards that bloom like a perennial, revealing new wonders with every viewing. The cineastes at Criterion deserve a standing ovation for their enduring commitment to quality backed up by the best DVD product in the business.

The River flows forever — constant, perpetual, yet ever-changing. To those who immerse themselves in these waters, Renoir’s stirring love letter to India delivers as great a gift as a cinephile could hope to receive from an artist.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Cinema Uprising values comments and feedback from readers. Although we cannot reply to every message, we do read comments and take your thoughts into consideration as we continuously produce fresh content.