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DVD Pick: "The River"

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"The River" (1951) is an English-language Technicolor film that was directed and co-written by the legendary Jean Renoir. While I don't think this movie reaches the level of Renoir's great French-language films "Grand Illusion" and "The Rules of the Game," I nonetheless consider it a splendid cinematic achievement.

In a 13-minute video interview on the Criterion Collection DVD containing "The River," Martin Scorsese says this movie is one of the two most beautiful color films ever made, the other being "The Red Shoes." I found his statement interesting that after seeing "Grand Illusion" 40 or 50 times, he would still rather see "The River." Also, he left me with the impression that "The Rules of the Game" doesn't really speak to him, although he acknowledges its importance.

Set in India, "The River" was shot in and around Calcutta. The story is based on the 1946 semi-autobiographical novel by Rumer Godden, and she worked with Renoir on the screenplay and was present during shooting. The sensibility of this movie feels different to me from that of the other Renoir films I've seen, and I speculate that part of the reason may have been Godden's influence.

Rumer Godden (1907-98) was a prolific and popular author for decades, and her most famous novel "Black Narcissus" has never been out of print since its publication in 1939. On the DVD there's a 1995 BBC documentary showing Godden in her 80's revisiting places on the Indian subcontinent where she lived when she was young. This documentary is beautifully photographed and I found it worth watching, but I should warn you it is very low-keyed and lasts nearly an hour.

"The River" is set in an unnamed village on the banks of an unidentified holy river in eastern India, and I believe Renoir was deliberately vague about when the events depicted are supposed to have taken place. The story is narrated by an unseen Englishwoman—Rumer Godden's alter ego—giving what seems to me a somewhat romanticized account of perhaps three months of her adolescence.

None of the film's actors were familiar to me, and at times I found the storytelling style a bit antiquated. Nevertheless, the movie did pull me in emotionally. I would say one of the movie's strengths is that the events in it might really happen. For example, an awkward, nerdy girl gets a crush on a young man visiting her neighbor, but he is attracted to a prettier, more graceful girl. But that young man is battling demons of his own as he tries to come to terms with the loss of one of his legs during a war. Meanwhile, the nerdy girl's kid brother decides he can mesmerize a cobra like the snake charmer he has seen at the bazaar.

All the materials on the DVD are entirely in English with the exception of one extra: an eight-minute introduction to the movie by Jean Renoir, where he speaks in French with English subtitles provided. It appears to me this featurette was probably originally made for French television. I found Renoir's remarks here quite interesting about how "The River" got started as a film project. Renoir was living in the Los Angeles area in the late 1940's when he read Godden's novel and acquired an option for the movie rights to it. Later he was contacted by a local florist named Kenneth McEldowney (1906-2004), who wanted to get into filmmaking by financing a movie about India, where he had performed military duty.

Continued on the Next Page: More About the Bonus Materials

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