Director Jean Renoir’s entrancing first color feature—shot entirely on location in India—is a visual tour de force. Based on the novel by Rumer Godden, the film eloquently contrasts the growing pains of three young women with the immutability of the Bengal river around which their daily lives unfold. Enriched by Renoir’s subtle understanding and appreciation for India and its people, The River gracefully explores the fragile connections between transitory emotions and everlasting creation.
Picnic at Hanging Raj?
Where to begin? An undercurrent of adolescent sexuality runs through The River, a film about elite cultural (re)production as well as a particular class and period which, rather like the stopped record we see in the opening scenes, cannot simply be started again.
The young Harriet slowly comes into focus as the main character, her sexual awakening (as depicted through the kite and other vivid symbols) mirrors the Indian independence that is set to occur a year after the events in the film take place. At the same time though, whilst the film's view of 'India' is necessarily limited in some ways, it is limited in perhaps the same way that Harriet's view is limited: self-centred, like a child. It is ultimately left to the viewer whether the parallels to colonial paternalism are deliberate, however. Harriet's obsession, Captain John, is an interesting character on the face of it, yet there is something about him that does not entice the viewer to care about his thoughts or desires. It's not that he is a hollow character in the usual sense, more that he is filled with sawdust. Either way, he is closed off to us, likely due to his PTSD from serving in the Second World War... which was no doubt less 'heroic' than we are led to believe. Perhaps more of the British imperial project would be legible to us if we considered the typical colonialist less of an absurdly cruel monster but a traumatised, damaged figure who does not feel at home in the metropole but can be quite easily absorbed by the bureaucratic machine of Empire.
The River depicts the girls' infatuation with him as rather childlike throughout — even quite pathetic at times. Yet whilst depicting it that way, the film as a whole does not entirely treat it as such. This is especially given elder Harriet's narration. Indeed, these voiceovers were some of the best parts of the book for me — orientalising throughout, of course, but often beautifully poetic, and likely taken from the original book.
The bratty child acting is, alas, as weak as their understanding of the surrounding Indian culture. (Or as shallow as the emotions in the European music being practised throughout the house.) Apparently, much of the filmed footage including the children had to be thrown away, and what remains is often painful to watch. And whilst the film is truly remarkable in its depiction of Indian culture for a film made the late 1940s, it does, as alluded to above, still center the white family. And nobody seems to have told the film that simply knowing a bunch of local Hindu rituals and festivals doesn't amount to a true appreciation of a culture, after all... (And don't forget that Harriet's Krishna story that mystifies the Orient is entirely her invention!).
These are actually quite minor quibbles, though, for this is absolutely superior filmmaking by Renoir. Observe, for example, that we only see the coffin being delivered — we are not shown the body lying within it, like almost all directors would be tempted to do. It was also extremely wise not to cast Captain John with a traditionally 'attractive' actor, which would have not only distracted the viewer by their attendant celebrity, but it would have simplified Harriet's symbolic devotion to Captain John, two problems that taint David Farrar's casting as Mr Dean in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Black Narcissus (1947) which must, for many reasons to numerous to list here, must be considered a very close relation of this film.
Anyway, this didn't quite hit the emotional notes for me that I think it wanted to, but only because I saw it after (in particular) Satyajit Ray's The Music Room (1962).