The River was the first color film for both director Jean Renoir, nephew and cinematographer Claude Renoir, and for assistant Satyajit Ray. As Scorsese notes in his introduction to the Criterion DVD, the Renoir reputation for distinct contrast comes through in the technicolor; Jean had the garden lawn painted because it “wasn’t green enough.”
The River is a typical British coming-of-age story. Harriet and her friends and siblings play in a garden, isolated from the outside world. But, their secret garden is broached by an intruder — a man. Soon, the girls must grow up.
The film is set in India, but the story is told exclusively through the British point of view. It’s not excessively imperialistic; no Rudyard Kipling. It’s based on a novel by Rumer Godden, who was also grew up as a British girl in India. Like its characters, The River is unconcerned with debates over exploitation or race. One character matter-of-factly remarks to a visiting fellow Brit, “This is my sweatshop.”
Renoir easily could have told this story in a studio. There’s no concern for authenticity; The River isn’t supposed to show us the “real India.” Nor does it rely on exoticism; Renoir wanted “A film about India without elephants and tiger hunts.”
The few landscapes we see could easily have been shot by a documentary crew — the montage where adult Harriet poetically explains the steps leading down to the river might even been accomplished by using the studio’s file footage. (The dock-loading scenes seem to consciously echo Basil Wright’s The Song of Ceylon.)
Ian Christie contrastsThe River with Powell & Pressburger’s Black Narcissus – a film also set in India and also based on a novel by Rumer Godden. Narcissus mythologizes India, and it does it on a set. The River treats India as an ordinary place; it’s the same story that could happen anywhere, but just with a different flavor, as Harriet tells us. Shooting on location helps to emphasize the de-mythologization. India is the “least mysterious” of all countries, as Renoir tells us in his introduction, also on the Criterion DVD.
I'm a journalist and film enthusiast who lives in the beautiful Ozark Mountains of Northwest Arkansas. I've been writing about movies for 15 years and I hosted a weekly movie review television show on UATV for two years.