But this film is always with me and after a break it came back to life during my first trip to India and especially during the first time I attended a small performance of classical Indian dance.
There was always with me the passionate essay by André Bazin on The River called "a pure masterpiece" where Bazin defended this film against its critics.
No doubt for me if have to choose between The River and Renoir´s most famous film La Regle du Jeu, I always would choose The River.
Today I would even say this film is a kind of Renoir´s "Tree of Life". But it is always by far the only time in film history where a westerner made in a film in Asia and it became an Asian film.
Neither in America and Europe nor in India itself the film was much loved at the time of its release.
Several texts told already about the extreme bad conditions the film was made, the low budget, the heat, the problem that Renoir never knew for 2 weeks how the images he shot were looking like. It was the first color film shot in India and also Renoir´s first approach to work with colors.
And Renoir added in this film (an adaption from a novel by Rumor Godden who also was the co-writer of the screenplay) elements which were not in the novel. First of all he shot a lot of of documentary footage, recorded Indian music and added the story of an British-indian girl called Melanie, an inspiration which is the most precious element in this masterpiece. Neither Rumer Godden nor the producer were very happy with this. Even though the subject was a coming of age -story about some British adolescent girls grown up in India, the narrative, explicit western point of view is always undermined with Renoir´s obsession for Indian landscapes, Indian people, Indian music and last but not least Indian colors or how suitable they were to be recorded by Technicolor at that time.
As I can´t agree with accusations against this film like exoticism, naivety, occidental sentimentality etc - which came from critics from Europe, America and India at the same time - I still consider the film as an Asian film. How the small plot is structuring a lot of non-dramatic moments, very close to Ozu and much closer than any European or American will ever come to that, evokes one irony in film history. By accident The River was released in the same year like Ozu´s Bakushu and both films have a likely scene with some of the most sophisticated camera movements I have ever see. If we remember the beach scene in Bakushu where a camera movement suggests for a small moment the rotation of the earth, we have the pendant in Renoir´s film at the end, when the camera slides over the heads of Melanie, Valerie and Harriet ( again a movement which reminds us in the rotation of our planet) to the eternal flowing river. Both films are one of the most accessible films by their director´s, both films have on the surface a "light" character, both offer a lot of heart warming humor - and yet both films are the most ambitioned and most sophisticated these directors ever made. Last but not least, both films are unorthodox in their narrative style and by another accident, both films belong to the most beautiful films I ever saw in my life for more than 20 years.
There is the moment when the film reveals just a series of shots of some people just having an afternoon nap. You just see people sleeping like you see otherwise rather in films by Ozu than anywhere else. Just this small moment is unimaginable in European nor in American cinema. But after all the whole film really could have take place in all places of the world. I agree with Bazin that despite the fact Ray saw this film in the 1970s, around 20 years after it was made and despite how much Ray was reserved against The River, there is an affinity to the Apu-trilogy and too some other films Ray made. There is like I mentioned an affinity to Ozu and even a prophecy to great films made in the following 60 years. Even though Renoir is a quite different cinematic temperament, the poetic structure of the images can evoke even Malick´s The Tree of Life.
One key scene of this film is Harriet reading a self written story to the crippled Lt. John and Valerie about the eternal circles of life. A young woman gives birth to a girl who grows up and marries. And again the story continues to an endless circle. As an English girl, Harriet knows a few real Indians and includes in this story Indians she knows like Melanie and Anil. Heart of this scene is Melanie´s (Radha Bournier´s Kuchipudi- dance, obviously part of Renoir´s recorded documentary footage. This seemingly harmless story told by a girl in her adolescence enfolds one of the most complex and self-reflective moments in Renoir´s work.
How ridicule it is to blame this film for naivety or superficial exotic attractions, is that that the perspective India seen from western eyes is always part of the whole film. Lt. John the American crippled and mentally disturbed by the war on the search for himself, even more explicit the search of the Anglo-Indian Melanie for the culture where she belongs to or the old Mr. John who is almost absorbed by India after the death of his Indian wife are like the adolescent girls or the boy who is obsessed by snakes a real kaleidoscope of point of views.The rest of India (the film takes obviously place some decades before India´s independence) is relatively seldom present in the plot. Ray once described his disappointment when Renoir said that it is rather a film about English in India with hardly Indian characters and even made for western audience. The fact he added Melanie as a character to the film seems almost like a reaction of Renoir on that criticism and without doubt she is the missing link between the intimate life of an English family and the "real" India which begins behind the wall of the garden.
And much more than Renoir probably intended during making this film, through Melanie and his own documentary footage this film opens much more up to a more complex image of India at this time.
It shouldn´t be forgotten that Renoir knew very few about India. It was the South Indian actress Radha Bournier, a classical Indian dancer who introduced Renoir especially to Indian art like dance and music. She must have been a kind of guide for Renoir and he finally integrated her in the film against the dislike of Rumor Godden. The fact he really learned about India by traveling through it and by meeting people from India must have been the most important influences.
It is written already that the recorded film matter Renoir had together when he returned to Los Angeles was quite a mess. There was the low budget which made it impossible to do any re shootings and his daring experiment to work with professional and non-professional actors was not always lucky. We really don´t know how much of matter was useless. It is even not known if Renoir intended to integrate the documentary matter he shot in India.
But he had no choice to combine the film´s fiction with these matter. I don´t know if it was intended to be used for the film, but finally Renoir had chosen to use Indian music he recorded in India for the film. Finally it was the editing work who really made this film what it is now. The River was made but actually "happened" at the same time. The River was as well the final destination of his odyssey which began with his escape from France occupied by the Nazis through Italy and finally Hollywood where he was frustrated.
We can imagine Renoir in a lot of characters in this film: the crippled soldier (in fact Renoir was wounded in World war I. and was close to loose a leg), in Melanie who is split between her Indian and English identity, in the children Bogey and Harriet or in Mr. John who is totally absorbed by India. After exile, his unhappy experiences in Hollywood, Renoir was himself in a period where he was looking hardly for his place in this world. Last but not least, The River is the quintessence of Renoir´s deep love for the physical world. How the statues of the gods and goddesses made out of the loam of the river, after the religious celebrations they will brought back to the river where they will become again loam, Renoir reveals as well at the the scene about celebration of color the pigment powder all the colors around us are made of. The light, the water, the heaven, the loam ground, the people and the animals one can call The River as a nearly religious celebration of the matter of the world.
The fiction in this film is like the house with garden and wall. In the moment when Renoir opens this "house", the fictional idea of India to the rest of the world, Renoir opens the idea to real matter. The result is this film which never let me go.
remarks. the film was 2004 fully restored and who else than Martin Scorsese, one of the most passionate preserver of the heritage of cinema was again involved. The latest DVD from Criterion or BFI are all based on this restoration.