The magic of Jean Renoir’s films lie in people. That may sound cliche, obvious, or even an oversimplification, but his films take groups (often classes) of people, and uses it as the basis of how he explores life. His World War I film is about the separation of officers and soldiers, and the bond those soldiers form. Rich and poor are explored in his masterpiece [i]The Rules Of The Game[/i]. Performers in a dance hall, citizens of turn of the century France, rural peasants…these are all people in his films. The films are not generally [b]about[/b] those external situations I’ve described, but how humans interact under those circumstances.
[b]The River[/b], from 1951 and filmed in India, is no different than those above films I’ve seen and listed. But it stands alone in Renoir’s canon with regards to how the community of characters interact. While the film is certainly not the only of his films to feature characters from disparate backgrounds, it seems unique in that circumstance is the only thing linking his community of characters.
In summation: the film is a study of a young girl and her life life with her family and other English people living near the Ganges River in India. Harriet is the oldest daughter of her family with several younger siblings, but she’s not the most senior child in her community. Valerie, a girl from another community, is a bit of her rival with the arrival of Captain John. She goes through growing pains, as some of the other young girls do. The family has a heartbreak with the death of their young son who is too curious and plays with a cobra snake. Rather than a traditional narrative, the film unfolds through little bits and pieces that show events that force young people to grow a little bit up.
Life lessons and social interaction are not uncommon in Renoir’s films. The director, himself, spends much of his masterpiece [i]The Rules Of The Game[/i] directly handing out life advice, himself! In later films, such as [i]Elena and Her Men[/i] and [i]French Can Can[/i], multiple storylines seem to be going on simultaneously during some very crowded scenes. None of this exists in [i]The River[/i], however. The ensemble seems broken apart. Melanie, a half-Indian, half-English girl, is being courted by an Indian boy, clearly of means, and her father recommends marrying him. He can give her things she would never get without him. But she’s not interested. We learn about her feelings through her interactions with her father, and with Captain John.
Captain John is one of the most interesting characters in the film. A combat veteran who lost a leg in the war, he struggles with being able to get through life independent, and manly. He flirts with Valerie and Melanie, but is really only there to visit. He, too, is shown in isolation…deep in thought about his own life. The young Harriet and Valerie, too, are shown in isolation. With the exception of the Diwali celebration early in the film, there seems to be very little, if any, whole group interaction, and there is none that is particularly of [b]substance[/b] where the character learns about life through interaction with others.
The film is easy to criticize. The acting is a bit “hammy” and “overdone.” The camera flourishes and social critique that is often embedded in Renoir’s best films is gone, here. But [i]The River[/i] is about growing up. It’s a film about becoming mature, and there are life lessons we need to figure out on our own. Harriet is too young to get to know what kissing a boy feels like, and this frustrates her. At the end of the film, Valerie, Melanie and, Harriet all get letters from the departed Captain John, but when Harriet’s younger sister asks what the girls are up to, she is shooed away, because she is not ready to learn about love from their perspective. And then a scene later, the family’s latest child is born, and all of those girls are then shut out from the birthing room. Each girl is frustrated as they watch someone else going through what will be their next stage of life, but they can’t are not yet ready to experience it for themselves. [i]The River[/i] may not be his smartest or best film, but in it, with all of its awkwardness and anxiety, Renoir might just be telling his most realistic tale of what people go through in life.