Jean Renoir is often revered for directing two brilliant cinematographic films of the 1930s - La Grande Illusion ( 1937 ) and The Rules of the Game ( 1939 ) - both considered by critics to be among the greatest films ever made, but Renoir also voyaged into the realm of Technicolor in the early 1950s and produced what could be considered one of the most vibrant color films ever made - The River ( 1951 ).
This film won the International prize at the Venice Film Festival when it was first released, but it has since fallen into obscurity, especially among Hollywood film fans. It may be because Renoir chose to use amateur actors for the leads, and while they handle their parts adequately, many feel that their performances kept this film from becoming the classic it could have been. Perhaps.....
Personally, I feel their naturalness adds to the charm of the picture, which often takes on the tone of a documentary. The River is one woman's reminiscences about her childhood in India and the growing pains she encountered as a girl; that woman being Rumer Godden. She wasn't a glamorous girl, and felt awkward at times...hence, the actress chosen to portray her ( Bengal native Patricia Walters ) was not glamorous and often awkward herself.
The other main characters in her story are her childhood friends, Melanie ( Radha ), a half-British/half-Indian girl, and Valerie ( Adrienne Corri ), a flighty beauty who isn't sure where her emotions stem from. Their peaceful childhood together growing up among the banks of the Bengal river are disrupted when a soldier, Captain John ( Thomas Breen ) comes for a prolonged visit with their neighbor. The captain is a handsome youth with flaming red hair, and the three girls quickly become smitten with him. Little do they realize that their romantic fantasies aren't shared by him. Captain John lost a leg in the war, and he has come to India primarily to escape the pity he feared he would receive back home. He also hopes to find inner peace and an acceptance for his condition, but leaves finding neither.
All of the characters in The River are truly misfits. Melanie doesn't know whether her viewpoints about life and marriage are more Eastern or Western; Valerie is beautiful but immature; Harriet ( the main character ) is wise but homely in appearance; Harriet's father has only one eye; and Captain John is the most lamentable of them all for he feels that his missing leg makes him less whole than others.
The River is a gentle and thoughtful film and it meanders along at a refreshingly slow pace while it explores these themes of love and hatred, acceptance of our situation, as well as life and death. Renoir makes his audience feel as though they were taking a slow boat journey down the river with plenty of time to stop and observe the locals in their daily activities and meditate on the constancy of the circle of life. If you have the time, it is well worth taking this journey.
Seen The River already? Then check out Alexander Sesonske's splendid essay on the film over at Critieron's website.