Combustible Celluloid
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With: Nora Swinburne, Esmond Knight, Arthur Shields, Suprova Mukerjee, Thomas E. Breen, Patricia Walters, Radha, Adrienne Corri, June Hillman (narrator), Nimai Barik, Richard R. Foster, Jane Harris, Jennifer Harris, Trilak Jetley, Bhogwan Singh, Penelope Wilkinson, Cecilia Wood
Written by: Jean Renoir, Rumer Godden, based on a novel by Rumer Godden
Directed by: Jean Renoir
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 99
Date: 09/10/1951

The River (1951)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Even Flow

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

If Jean Renoir's The River were released today, critics would complain about the awkward performances and the meandering plot, and the stretches where a female narrator, apparently reading from Rumer Godden's novel, tells us all about the daily goings-on on and around the Ganges River. But as I watched the movie for the first time since college, I realized that these things are all part of a whole, part of a specific flow. It's not too much of a stretch to say that the movie itself flows like a river, with currents and eddies, and no particular starting point or stopping point. Things happen in The River, good things and bad things, but life always goes on.

Renoir, whose 1962 filmed introduction is a bonus feature on Criterion's new 2015 Blu-ray release, was clearly smitten by India; after a turbulent time in Hollywood, his batteries were recharged there, and many consider his The River to be a masterpiece equal to The Rules of the Game. It's an effortless film, certainly beautiful — Martin Scorsese says, in another Blu-ray extra, that (along with The Red Shoes) it's the most beautiful color film he's seen — but it does require a certain shift in attitude. It's a movie so different from any other that the way we are trained to watch movies simply does not apply.

Harriet (Patricia Walters) is the main character, a pre-teen or early teen with the usual roiling emotions. Living with her family in India, she is completely smitten when another white, Captain John (Thomas E. Breen) comes to visit; he's a sad, lost soul who has lost his leg in the war. Harriet's best friend Valerie (Adrienne Corri) — their fathers own and operate a jute factory — is slightly older, and more sexually awakened. She has long, loose red hair, contrasting with Harriet's shorter, pinned-up hair. Valerie enjoys flirting with Captain John, arousing Harriet's jealousy.

That's probably the movie's main plot, but so much more happens. Captain John's cousin is a white who married a Hindu woman (now dead), and who now has a mixed-race teen daughter Melanie (Radha). The movie shows us a magical story about a wedding between Prince Krishna and a beautiful girl called Radha; in these scenes, Radha — a dancer in real life — mostly plays herself and dances to show her love for her new husband. There's also a thread about Harriet's younger brother, who runs off with an Indian boy and gets into trouble when his fascination for turtles turns into a fascination for cobras.

A short conversation between Melanie and Captain John more or less captures a greater theme, the theme of being a foreigner or an outsider. The one-legged man and the mixed-race girl don't seem to belong anywhere, even though their very exoticism makes them interesting and attractive to others. Yet Renoir the humanist frames all these characters together, as if to suggest that we are all forever sharing this place, all living and working, ebbing and flowing, around the river.

If The River is one of the most beautiful films ever made, then the Criterion's Blu-ray release does it proud. It has been mastered from the original three-strip Technicolor camera negatives, and is presented with an uncompressed monaural audio track. It includes the aforementioned introductions by Renoir and Scorsese (filmed in 2004 for the Criterion DVD), as well as a 2008 documentary about the making of the movie, an audio interview with producer Ken McEldowney from 2000, the new video essay "Jean Renoir: A Passage Through India," and a trailer. The liner notes booklet includes an essay by film scholar Ian Christie and notes on the film by Renoir

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