Sunday, April 12, 2020

Waterways: Jean Renoir's "The River"

Late in Jean Renoir's first technicolor film "The River", a tragedy strikes the British family living in India's wonderland of colors, scents and smells. The incident happens off-screen, but in one of the few times Renoir allows his camera to move, he gently dollies over and across several members of the family in various states of relaxation and slumber, oblivious to the disaster that's about to sweep over them. It took me about ten minutes after this series of scenes to realize the pregnant importance of those seemingly arbitrary camera moves. Once I realized the subtle intelligent design behind the aesthetic choices, it only confirmed my belief that Renoir's film is striving for something more than a standard year-in-the-life observation of a family, but that he's searching for the inherent beauty (and sadness) in life itself, ebbing and flowing like the majestic body of water nearby.

Renoir does something similar with movement in his 1945 film, "The Southerner", panning across a series of pictures and a calendar on the mantle of the Tucker family towards the end of that film. Serving as more of an exhale of exuberant relief as the migrant-farm working family have accepted and passed through many turmoils and disasters over their humble homestead, Renoir's humanist beauty calls attention to itself only in afterthought. Nothing is forced, but its proof that he's a master collaborator of mood, style and subject.

But back to "The River". Often praised for its Technicolor sharpness (and no doubt it looks incredible), but the real hook of the film is it's gentle spirit of the intimate. Focusing mainly on three young women- teenage daughter Harriet (Patricia Walters), friend Valerie (Adrienne Corri) and adopted Indian daughter Melanie (Radha)- the family lives in a sprightly existence. Prone to poetry and introspection, Harriet serves as the film's narrator, trying her best to objectify the subjectivity that happens along the way. And what happens along the way is the appearance of Captain John (Thomas Breen), a wounded war veteran who comes to live with the family, setting off fireworks between all three females on the property.

But far from a glib tale of unrequited love or possession, "The River" (based on a novel by Rumer Godden) is much too smart for such a thing. Each woman steadies a distinct relationship with Capt. John and the film carefully measures out the mood of each. With Valerie, the relationship is seductive and adult. With Melanie, it's tenuous since they both come from staggeringly different backgrounds. Their relationship feels like the one that would overtake the rest of a much more slight effort. And with Harriet, "The River" finds its true footing, which is an examination of a young woman trying to make sense of both her flowering adulthood and the cruel world around her. None of the three relationships drown the other out, and each compliments the film as something attuned to the gentle rhythms of growing up.

Made smack in the middle of Renoir's second life in cinema, rooted in Hollywood after fleeing Europe during World War II, I'm repentant it's taken me this long to see this film (as if the case with so many late career Remoirs). Washing over one like a golden memory, "The River" introduces itself like an easy memorization  of languid colonialism, and soon transforms itself into an interior examination of what it means to actually remember those metamorphic moments that make us the people we are today.