The River (Criterion Collection)
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An Austrian boys boarding school in the early 1900s, shy, intellectual Törless observes the sadistic behavior of his fellow students, doing nothing to help a victimized classmateuntil the torture has gone too far. Adapted from Robert Musil's acclaimed novel, Young Törless launched the New German Cinema movement and garnered the 1966 Cannes Film Festival International Film Critics' prize for first-time director Volker Schlöndorff.
When speaking of Jean Renoir's timeless masterpiece The River, one can easily exhaust their supply of superlatives. Frequently listed among the greatest films ever made, it was Renoir's first English-language film and his first in color and what rich, astonishing Technicolor it is! Shot by Renoir's nephew Claude, the film is a love letter to India, seen through the eyes (and narrated as memories) of an adolescent British girl living with her family near the banks of the Ganges, a location which allowed Renoir to indulge his burgeoning affection for the region, it's people, and the exotic allure of the Orient. Under challenging conditions, Renoir and author Rumer Godden adapted Godden's autobiographical novel into an elegant, loosely plotted reflection on the romance of India, and on coming of age in a culture that, until then, few Western filmgoers had ever seen on screen. (To enhance this journey to a new world, Renoir used Indian music recorded live in Calcutta instead of a traditional score; the effect is hypnotically inviting.) Blessed with eternal lessons of life, death, and love, The River offers a transcendent film experience, guaranteed to touch the heart of anyone who sees it. The film was meticulously restored to its original glory in 2004; Criterion's DVD release preserves that restoration with a pristine digital transfer. --Jeff Shannon
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The River tells its story through three girls on the brink of adulthood. Harriet, the daughter of the English manager of a jute mill on the banks of the Ganges; Radha, the daughter of their English neighbor whose mother was Indian; and Valerie, the daughter of a wealthy English couple whom we never meet. The three are close friends but each is dealing with with their changes in their own way. Then one day the American cousin of their neighbor arrives to stay for awhile. He lost his leg in the war and is handsome. All the girls develop feelings for him and suddenly their own feelings for each other begin to change. And he has problems of his own. He hasn't come to grips with having only one leg, nor with what he feels is the pity toward him he has encountered. The reality of his life weighs on him. As the most mature of the girls tells him, "After a war yesterday's hero is only a man with one leg."
The story is told through the narration of Harriet as an adult. "Suddenly" she says, "we were running away from childhood and rushing toward love." In the course of four seasons they experience the ebb and flow of emotions just as the river ebbs and flows. There is a death, a birth, and life goes on. And by the end of the movie they, and we, have learned a good deal more about ourselves.
I like this movie a lot, and I have a great respect for it. The Criterion DVD restores the picture to all of its Technicolor glory. It looks stunning. There are several extras. A short introduction by Renoir gives a fascinating look at what it took to get the film made. Martin Scorsese gives an appreciation of the film which is enlightening.
One sidelight is that the actor, Esmond Knight, who plays the father, was for all practical purposes blind. He enlisted in the royal navy at the start of WWII. During the battle to sink the Bismarck he had one eye destroyed and lost nearly all sight in the other. After he was invalided out he was determined to resume his acting career. His wife would teach him the lines for his movies and stage plays; he would memorize them (and everyone else's) by hearing them. She and others would block out his movements on the sets so that he could memorize exactly where the director wanted him to be, where he had to move, and all this in relation to the movements of the other cast members. Since he was blind, he had to master the technique of knowing exactly where to look so that it would appear he was looking where he should be. I challenge anyone to watch this movie and not be utterly convinced Knight was sighted. To my knowledge, he never played a blind man...and he had a long career in the movies (including five Powell/Pressburger films) and on the stage.
Based on Rummer Godden's autobiographical novel on her childhood spend on the bank of the Gandhis River, the film explores a radically poetic narrative which depends neither on a plot, nor driven with strong characters. It is really a visual poem. It doesn't "describe" anything, in preference to capture (as well as to create) a certain atmosphere, in eccense a whole universe of a certain life, beeing "felt".
Though its aim was radical, and so were the mise-en-scene strategies taken by Renoir which were very unusual back then and even so today --especially the use of colors, that Renoir with his art director Eugene Lourie often walked around the sets and locations with cans of paint--, the film itself is very gentle, inviting the audience to share this idylic, magical, almost mystical universe of childhood.
The majority of the cast were non-actors, and the entire film was shot on location, including many shots taken in documentaristic situations showing the indeginious life surrounding the river.
At the same time, Renoir altered his location settings tremendously, both phisically (akmost re-painting everything) and cinematically (the two housese at the center of the story was actually one house that they rented). The story line itself often blends the "real life" aspects and the fantasy, not contrasting each other, or not even moving freely from one another; they just co-exist throughout the entire story.
And this approach is totally justified, for the ambition of the film is not to create a faithful representation of Indian life, nor to present a "post-card" exotic touristic vision through European eyes (as many runnaway production shot in foreign landscape does). If the film is faithfull to something, it is above all faithful to the childhood experience, how a child would have felt. Though the protagonist family is a British one, at least for the children India is not a "foreign" land: it is their home. And that is the atmosphere, the feeling of this entire film, of a childhood memory in which there were really no distinction between the reality and the imagination.
THE RIVER is a key film in Renoir's career moving from "reality" to "inner truth", from the naturalism and social realism of his 30's films to the theatrical atrificially and satyrically enhanced realites that are presented in Criterion's DVD edition of "STAGE AND SPECTACLE". Because of this transitional nature, and the adventurous, experimental attitudes he was able to take thanks to the difficult production conditions, it may be a film in which he could be the truest to his feelings, to his aesthetics, to his sensitivities.
Making this film in such a remote location, or just financing this project considered to be odd in the view of the industry (after all, it vitually has no plot devices, and Jean's determination of not using stars), was extremely difficult. The producer that he found, Ken McEldowney (whose interview can be seen as one of the supplements), was not a film producer, but a successfull florist and real estate businessman. While shooting in Technicolor required a lot of electricity for lightings and such, it was nearly impossible to get enough supply of that in India back then. They had to bring their own generator, which in turn made a lot of noize, when Renoir liked to shoot with direct sound as much as possible. To create the camera movements which give the film an extraordinary floating feel was yet another difficulty the filmmakers had to face, for the film was shot in three-strips Technicolor process which offers thick, subtle, nuanced and beautiful color pallette, but in turn its camera was so huge and heavy.
But as you will see on this DVD, featuring a High-Def transfer from a magnificently restored film elements, the result that they achieved is...
...I won't say stunning, that doesn't sound appropreate for THE RIVER. The Technicolor process is often mistaken that it provides strong, lush colors that pop up to the ey, which is not true (it was just that the majority of Technicolor photographed films used sets, costumes and make-ups emphasising on primary colors). It's color is deep, more subtle, actually far more faithful to reality than the monopack processes (such as Eastmancolor). The effects of THE RIVER to its audience is gentle, absorbing, and beautifully poetic.
Watching THE RIVER is not to be captivated by a story, or strong outstanding characters, or what ever you might expect from a movie. It is to be absorved in a whole atmosphere and feel it, experience it, maybe dreaming it.
Martin Scorsese also offers a video introduction to the film. Obviously the film has influenced his works a great deal, especially the use of colors, of the rythm. Scorsese, especially in his recent films, also always try to capture an atmosphere, and not neccessary to "tell the story". He certainly wants to make a film like THE RIVER, and the closest achievement of his so far must be KUNDUN, which is also a visual poem which aim was really to recreate a whole atmosphere of Tibet.
Several scenes allude to this theme. For instance, the statue of Hindu goddess Kali, symbolising creation and destruction, is moulded from the river's clay and returns to clay when it is submerged in the river after devotees complete a ritual celebration. Mr. John (Arthur Shields) at one point philosophises on life with his American cousin, Capt. John (Thomas E. Breen), stating one man jumps from the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge while another goes on his way across the bridge. When young Bogey (Richard Foster), Harriet's brother, dies from a cobra's bite a sibling is born some months after his death.
Between birth and death are the lives of ordinary people who reside, work, play or worship along the river. Some face conflict which is either solved or insoluble. Capt. John is the war veteran (unspecified war) who has lost a leg and is struggling to put his past behind him. Valerie, Melanie and Harriet (Adrienne Court, Radha and Patricia Walters) are adolescent girls who express their respective infatuations for Capt. John and their ensuing growing pains. Mr. John is the British expatriate and widower who has contentedly adopted the ways and culture of India, yet agonises over the mixed-race status his marriage to an Indian woman has created for his daughter Melanie. Harriet's father (Esmond Knight) is the manager of a jute factory, busy with its operation, yet concerned about his children growing up. Boats laden with jute ply the river bringing Indian labourers, pursuing their livelihood. And holy men spend their days mediating at the banks of the river. The point is, each represents an extension of how humanity as a whole goes about living between birth and death.
As for the photography, "The River" is nothing short of spectacular. Interestingly, it was the first Technicolor film shot in India, which apparently posed some inherent technical limitations that Renoir had to overcome while filming in the tropics, which makes it all the more magnificient. The result is an impressionist's dream. Renoir does a Renoir in setting up shots that could have been stills from his father's own paintings. Look for the twin girls sleeping, the nanny and children peering through a colonnade lined railing, the teenage girls sneaking a view of Capt. John's arrival from a crumbling brick fence. There are so many lovely images, actually far too many to mention in this review.
Some reviewers have commented about the weak performances of the actors. While this is a fair assessment, Renoir had little choice. Had he compromised artistic preference and authenticity for the stereotypical India the studio heads in Hollywood wanted, perhaps the funding for more notable actors of the day could have been cast. When producer Kenneth McEldowney, a newcomer to the film industry, consented to Renoir's concept for "The River" funding was limited to no more than a handful of well-known actors. Although he cast amateurs like Breen (an actual amputee) and Radha (a classical Indian dancer), it is arguable their personal backgrounds made their roles more realistic and believable.
All in all, "The River: Criterion Collection" is EXCELLENT. In addition to this beautiful 90-minute movie, there's a commentary from Martin Scorsese -- a key figure in the restoration of the film, an interview with Jean Renoir, a conversation with Rumer Godden, the author of "The River", as well as the original theatrical trailer and some off screen stills taken during the filming. A booklet comes with this collection too, featuring essays from notable film scholars (Ian Christie and Alexander Sesonske) and technical insight on the restoration of the film.
Never the less, Jean Renoir brings unbelievable beauty to this film, which was his first attempt at full Technicolor, and it's a glorious attempt, called the most beautiful color film (along with Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes) by Martin Scorsese.
The color has a warm subtlety and grace which can only be described as characteristic as his father's paintings, cheap as that sounds.
Is The River the Rules of the Game of Renoir's color period, as Andre Bazin claims? No, I'm afraid no movie is as good as The Rules of the Game, yet this is a wonderful and important work all the same.
PS: It's one of Scorcese's favourite film... Need any other reason to watch it?
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