Renoir's 'The River' (Criterion) - great disc, shame about the film

Discussion in 'DVD' started by andrew markworthy, Mar 14, 2005.

  1. andrew markworthy

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    I've just taken delivery of Renoir's The River (came out recently on Criterion). I've looked for a review of it on HTF, couldn't find it, so I thought I'd offer MTC.

    For those who haven't seen it, The River is set in India in the latish 1940s, just after India gained independence from British colonial rule. The story concerns the white British family of a manager of a jute works - or more specifically, the pubescent daughter of the family. The white neighbour (who married a native Indian woman and has a mixed race daughter) has a friend to stay - an ex-army captain who lost a leg in the war. The story basically concerns the daughter coming to terms with first love (for the ex-soldier) and first significant loss (one of the other kids in the family dies). At the end of the film, nothing much has been resolved. The central characters have perhaps a little more self-awareness, and that's about it.

    With regard to the film itself, the photography is stunning, and a good showpiece for Technicolor in all its faults and all its glory. The principal deficit is the usual gripe that the process made things look like rather garish postcards. On the plus side, some scenes are so vibrant they are breathtaking. Sound, although mono, is remarkably clear.

    However, the content of the film is another matter. I should being by saying that in general I'm a huge fan of Renoir's work. Rule of the Game remains one of my all-time favourites. However, as for The River ... Frankly, me not like. Several reasons:

    (1) There is zilch political insight into the status of Brits as colonialists. This need not have been a major theme, but at least some signs of greater awareness are necessary. You could e.g. have a domestic drama amongst members of the white families on a slave plantation in the Deep South, but you'd think it odd if no mention was made of the inherently repressive conditions of the workers.

    (2) Far too much of the acting is wooden beyond belief. There are a lot of amateur actors in the film, but even some of the professional actors seem incapable of delivering believable dialogue.

    (3) The film meanders, and the principal themes frankly are neither original nor particularly interesting.

    Now I'm sure that a lot of folks' opinions of The River will differ markedly from this, and fine - mine is a personal reaction only.

    However, I would still praise this disc in any case, because the extras are wonderful. There is a short and charming introduction by Renoir himself taken from an old French TV series (odd to hear someone talking in French about a film they directed in English). There is also a wonderful documentary on the woman on whose novel the film was based and a very entertaining audio monologue from the financial backer of the film (the only one he made - he previously had been a successful florist and after the movie went into real estate). Plus, the picture quality is wonderful. If any of you saw The River on the TV or in art house cinemas pre-1990s, you'll know how shabby-looking the movie had become. However, now following restoration (in part led by Martin Scorcese, who provides a short but throughtful appraisal of the movie on the disc as well) it looks as good as I think we're going to see it.

    For those who like The River, or want a pristine example of what Technicolor was capable of, then this is a no-brainer purchase. If you're unsure, then I'd advise renting first.
     
  2. Brook K

    Brook K Lead Actor

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    '
     
  3. andrew markworthy

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    Factual correction: the narration isn't by the girl but by the woman she grew up to become - the tale is being told retrospectively. This makes the failure to refer to the colonialist nature of the family life all the more odd.

    Note I'm not saying that The River should have contained some politically correct posturing about the evils of colonialism, but there should have been at least some signs of awareness that there was a broader set of issues in which the story was taking place.

    Given that India at the time the film is set was still getting over riots that killed hundreds of thousands and led to partition of the country and the creation of Pakistan, this omission is bizarre. And given Renoir's treatment of class inequality in Rules of the Game, the absence borders on the surreal.

    May I just stress that this is a personal reaction? I know a lot of folks really like this film; however, I thought it fair for anyone wondering whether to buy The River to note that criticisms can be raised.
     
  4. ArthurMy

    ArthurMy Supporting Actor

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    It sounds to me like Mr. Renoir and screenwriter (and novelist Rumer Godden) simply didn't make the movie you wanted or thought they should make. For me, The River is a perfect film in every way. I don't need "backstory" I don't need big dramatic scenes - I think Mr. Renoir knew exactly what he wanted to deliver and that's what he delivered, IMO. You clearly wanted something else from the film, and that's fine.

    I love the DVD and have watched it twice already. I don't find any of the color garish, in the American three-strip way - in fact, with just a few exceptions (the flowers, some clothing) it's quite muted, and at times is as muddy-brown as the water of the river.
     
  5. Seth Paxton

    Seth Paxton Lead Actor

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    The discussion of this probably belongs in Movies, so I'll keep it short, but its not the character making the statement in ANY film, but rather the filmmaker by what he shows or doesn't and how he does this. So little girl or woman reflecting, any insight could still come from Renoir himself via how he "writes" the film.

    I haven't seen it yet, just defending Andrew's desire to see such insights no matter who the main character is. They don't need to understand what they are telling us for us to know what it really means. Better I think to say that this was simply not Renoir's reason for making the film, perhaps he had some other theme in mind rather than a political discussion/opinion.



    On the software side I'd like to make time to Netflix it just to see the Technicolor, and Brook already got me a bit interested over in the S&S Challenge thread anyway. [​IMG]

    The extras sound like more Criterion quality work, which is almost always as interesting as the film itself. It's nice to know that these films get this respect from someone, though to be fair many other companies have come around on at least some of their catalogs (like that Gangsters set).
     
  6. Jeff Adams

    Jeff Adams Screenwriter

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    And I thought this was a thread about the Mel Gibson, Sissy Spacek movie.[​IMG]
     
  7. Brian PB

    Brian PB Supporting Actor

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    I am a huge fan of Jean Renoir, and I was able to watch the Criterion DVD last night (my first viewing of The River). While I don't believe this film is one of his masterpieces, I disagree wholeheartedly with Andrew's assessment.

    With regards to the film's politics

    1. Renoir was content to make a mostly faithful adaptation of Rumer Godden's novel, with the author's collaboration, so you might just as well criticize the novel for not being more progressive in showing a different point of view concerning India's independence. As others have pointed out, this was not the story that either Godden or Renoir chose to tell. Still, Renoir broadened the scope of the story, and added the essential mixed-race character of Melanie.

    2. Given that Renoir's personal politics were decidedly left-wing, you can be sure that he was both aware of and sympathetic to the anti-colonialist, pro-self-determination cause. But he chose to express these sympathies artistically, rather than through polemics. Renoir's camera shows an amazing respect for and empathy toward the people of India. He does not condescend to Indian beliefs and traditions (in fact, he celebrates them), nor does he assert the superiority of Western European culture. Renoir writes in his autobiography, My Life and My Films:

    Renoir's famous humanism shines through in this film.

    3. When novice producer Ken McEldowney was looking for an Indian literary source to adapt, it was Nehru's daughter herself (though Renoir writes in his autobiography that it was merely an associate close to Nehru) who suggested Rumer Godden's novel as the perfect choice.

    With respect to the acting, Renoir attempted to attract American starpower to the film (Marlon Brando was his first choice for Captain John!), both the limited budget and the logistics of filming in India prevented it. He was forced to accept the use of amateurs in crucial roles. As Alexander Sesonske points out in his essay contained in Criterion's booklet, Renoir compensated by keeping the scenes short, editing out portions of the film in which the acting was too artificial, and adding the voice-over narration to stitch the gaps together.

    What he ended up with is more impressionistic and episodic than the usual Hollywood linear narrative, but it is filled with magic and color and empathy. Sesonske argues that this style anticipates the masterpieces of Antonioni nearly a decade later.

    With regard to Criterion's DVD, I found it to be another stellar job. I would encourage you to read the two excellnt essays in the booklet, watch Renoir's introduction, and listen to the audio interview with the producer, all of which provide excellent context for this film. The transfer of this Technicolor miracle is excellent, but as with The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, you will probably notice instances where the color tint wavers (particularly early in the film). This is apparently an instance of "chroma breathing" and (as I understand it) is due to varying density of the individual strips of the three-strip Technicolor elements (perhaps Robert Harris could explain it better). It is not a fault of the transfer.
     
  8. Robert Harris

    Robert Harris Archivist
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    Certainly not a fault of the transfer.

    One normally finds this YCM "breathing" in Technicolor dupes or sep masters.

    Col. Blimp is a good case in point, but it can be seen beautifully in the Five Star Ultra edition of The Sound of Music. Simply look at a neutral area in a dupe and watch the colors shift kaleidoscopically.

    RAH
     
  9. Ravi K

    Ravi K Supporting Actor

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    Is it really the Technicolor process that makes things look garish? I remember Gone With The Wind looking vibrant but natural.

    My Eyewitness book on film (got it when I was in 6th grade) has a comment about Becky Sharp, the first Technicolor film, from a critic of the time saying that the characters looked like boiled fish dipped in mayonnaise!
     
  10. Brian PB

    Brian PB Supporting Actor

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    A perceptive essay on The River by Doug Cummings can be found at his weblog, filmjourney.org.
     

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