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by Morris Yang Featured Film Kicking the Canon Kicking the Canon

The River — Jean Renoir

March 18, 2022

Timelessness is a crucial thing of nature — where sediments erode and seas dry, nature par excellence remains unchanged, a totality to reckon with, yet itself, by virtue of how all who do so are situated within it, unreckonable. To promulgate such a thesis is to do little beyond description; to prescribe it, however, beyond the nature of trees, winds, and birds, to the world of mankind, is to humanize nature; in short, to establish a human nature of the world, chaotic yet unchanging, contingently unpredictable but fundamentally cyclical. Such is the moral grandiosity, or poetic hubris, that assaults the viciously beautiful and visually engorged frames of The River, Jean Renoir’s first color film (and the first since his disillusionment with, and departure from, America and Hollywood). Shot in Technicolor, with (then-future) filmmaker Satyajit Ray serving as its assistant director, The River came in the wake of India’s national independence in 1947, but with the latter’s tumultuous developments and antagonisms scarcely reflected in the former’s narrative just four years later. Instead, both time and locale are hardly determinable: a country house off a river in Bengal, located near villages of commerce, jute (a type of fiber) processing, and the rush of native bodies by an unnamed, eponymous river — at processions, in toil, at leisure.

In a way, this seeming ahistoricism reflects historical anomaly; for, despite its post-war context, The River bears few of its national scars. What, however, infuses Renoir’s film with ravishing power is its recontextualizing of history without necessarily shouldering its insurmountable burdens. Adapted from Rumer Godden’s novel of the same name, The River centers around the lives of an English family living in sunny Bengal, a family of six children, their parents, nanny, and gatekeeper. Harriet (Patricia Walters), the oldest of the six, spends her adolescent days with her best friend Valerie (Adrienne Corri), the daughter of her father’s boss who owns the jute factory he manages. Harriet also serves as the film’s narrator, although it is an older version of her that speaks, her elegiac, somnambulistic voice infused with paradoxical, prescient, historical clarity. This voice traverses the river in all its visual tactility, magnifying and accentuating its ochre banks, saturated contours in their magnificent sum: perceived as backdrop to her subject, yet partly integrated into this subject by way of her emotional dependence on it. For Harriet, as with India, the river’s lifeblood flows through many veins: sustenance, adventure, community, romance, transience, normality. It serves as irreducible metonym, perhaps for its geographic locale, but more pressingly for the life that has dwelled and will dwell within.

Renoir’s painterly genius hence comes to the forefront, orchestrating its symphony of life’s timelessness; for in The River, a film that in fact takes place mostly on land, the water’s significance soon sublimates itself as human symbol. Its many currents encounter one another in a miasma of subjectivity, mediated through Harriet’s narration but rarely, if ever, overpowered by it. When the family’s neighbor receives his American cousin, Captain John (Thomas E. Breen), the girls of the household are one after the other transfixed by him; John only has one leg (a trophy of conflict and valor), but neither Harriet nor Valerie are deterred in their advances. The neighbor’s daughter, Melanie (Radha Burnier), fixates on her presumed marriage to a local young man; she, being of mixed descent (her Indian mother having passed some years back), occupies neither Indian tradition nor English custom, her desire unfocused, unarticulated. Harriet’s only brother, the young Bogey (Richard R. Foster), chases and attempts to charm snakes, while their parents, in the heat of summer, happily expect the delivery of their seventh.

Amidst this languid atemporal portrait of colonial India, The River realizes its status as Modernist icon, its voice reminiscent of the Western individual subject’s rich philosophical maturation. Indeed, much of Harriet’s story bridges her transition from childhood to adulthood, from the innocence of rural everyday life toward stirrings of lust and remorse, death and denial. But to affix and/or decry its Modernist status arguably misses the point. A curious trace of cultural frisson lingers over Renoir’s undoubtedly signature humanism, a frisson whose dialectical tensions dispel (or perhaps double down on) the latter’s potentially naïve dispositions. Where, for example, the film’s depiction of the English family vis-à-vis their native backdrop exoticizes the latter, it too alienates the former. Then again, such humanism inevitably sits uneasily with viewers predisposed to totalizing critiques of empire; by situating them within historical consciousness and not outside of it, and ascribing to this consciousness its theoretical and affective dimensions (the latter being of especial note given the film’s ostensibly biographical leanings), Renoir’s gentle brushstrokes are frequently mistaken for schematic ones. What, instead, appears over The River’s deceptively contained runtime is its Modernist idyll deconstructed and reconstructed; deconstructed first as the facile imprints of a child, and then reconstructed through the timeless philosophy of modernity.

In a more marked parallel, The River stands intriguingly alongside post-colonial conventions of representation, many of which tend toward acknowledgment of not just the current’s rapid violence, but also its innate otherness. The logic, so it goes, is that colonial representations of the Other appropriate and paradoxically soften it, necessitating a reclaiming of otherness as other. Where, for instance, Marguerite Duras’ seminal India Song, made twenty-four years after, finds a more concrete setting in the 1920s as well as a far greater sterility to its environs, Renoir’s Modernist expression rejects this general pessimism and recounts, as antidote, the personal stakes of adolescent self-discovery contextualized within an environment both personal and universal. Despite its own post-colonial context, The River harbors Modernist nostalgia over postmodernist ennui, its frames teeming with natural life and expanse, never enclosing itself within Duras’ glacial, luxuriant mausoleum of mirrors, reflections, and ghosts. For Renoir, then, the liminality of The River’s setting allows it to attempt (boldly, perhaps even brashly) a synthesis of the violence inherent to the colonial project with the violence of life proper; where the former coalesces into the latter, and vice versa, the film both constructs and challenges its sociological imaginaries, and does so exquisitely.

InRO contributor Sarah Williams, in her review of India Song, aptly relates the chilly frames Duras locks her viewers within to the film’s grandest (and frequently invisible) symbol: that of the “broken mirror, [whose] images [are] discussed but never returned to.” One might imagine a possible negation of this splintered caducity in Renoir’s oeuvre proper, especially the monochrome classics he remains most remembered for. 1937’s La Grande Illusion strikingly provides comparative ground here; where it displayed war’s theatre in a most human form — as mere interactions and displays of human ambition — The River now serves as an almost-paean to life’s cyclicality, a realization informed by the historical confluence of British violence and its influence on Hindu religious customs. Simplicity is, naturally, not associated with proper critique, but if anything, Renoir does not elude critique and even complexifies its possibilities. John, the film’s object of desire, is a war hero but also a restless stranger in need of both solitude and companionship, unmoored from experience and filled with the traumatic disillusionment of the world. By humanizing violence, Renoir reveals both its efficient and final causes without valorizing either agency or fatalism. Similarly, the quotidian appearances of birth and death transcend caricature and even symbol, each thrust into view with a pathos only available, perhaps, in the liminal years within which The River was made — after the fall from willful colonial innocence, before the disillusionment of India Song — and likewise, through the perspective of one on the precipice of adulthood. What Renoir delivers, that endures to this day, is a work whose Orientalist mode embodies and examines itself, a setting whose characters inhabit and explore through templates of myth and modernity. In The River, the water refracts but never loses its vortex of images: the wedding in Harriet’s narrativized story, transformed into one of spiritual lore between Lord Krishna and his consort Radha; the daily rhythms, circadian and naturalized, of Bengal’s river, its native laborers and bodies unapologetically rendered as background; the simultaneous disillusionment and enlightenment when faced with the modern, adult world, tinged with impossible love, tragic death, cruel displacement. And so The River restores, somewhat prematurely, the broken mirror of the Orient; its concluding shot of the river, with its boats and workers, houses a historical time rendered both in flux and eternity.

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.