One of the chief pleasures of collecting the DVDs and Blu-Rays from the Criterion Collection over the last few years for me has been the discovery of one Jean Renoir.
While few would question his greatness, the French director of films like The Rules of the Game, Grand Illusion, and this week's essential The River doesn't have such a monumental reputation within either Criterion or cinephilia more generally. That's perhaps because he doesn't have "a thing." In that same class of directors, Kurosawa is the samurai guy, Bergman is the bleak existentialist, Chaplin is the comedic genius, and Bunuel is the king of Surrealism.
The most singular thing one could say about Renoir is that he was a humanist. No matter the language spoken or the country he set his film in, they were and remain extremely empathic portraits of what it's like to live, love, regret, and persevere. Sometimes these elemental behaviors play out on the battlefield. Other times they surround a simple countryside picnic. That's perhaps his greatest achievement—the carefully crafted feelings that always transcended time, place, and circumstance.
The River is late Renoir and one of his most incredible achievements. Based on a novel by Rumer Godden, it tells the story of Harriet [Patricia Walters], the teenage daughter of an Englishman living and working in India as the owner of a jute pressing company. [Jute, we learn poetically, is a plant used to make things like twine.] Most of what we glean about this girl comes via the narration of her older self reflecting on a life she remembers fondly—a relatively simple one defined by trips to the market, time with her friends and siblings, and crushes on visiting English servicemen like Captain John [Thomas E. Breen].
The elephant [no pun intended] in the room regarding The River is that it's a story about a place under colonial rule told from the perspective of a naive colonial. In this sense, it's a film that probably couldn't be made today. There's no attempt to reconcile the state of the nation within this film's context, and it's probably better off for it. The River is nothing if not respectful for India's people and culture, and as it plays on, reasons emerge for some of its simpler depictions of foreign men and women. Everything in The River comes from a place of longing—an older woman remembers life before pain. It just so happens that the life she’s describing is colored [beautifully, mind you] by an exotic and unfamiliar place. Such a delicate balance is only possible because of the source material’s authenticity [the author grew up in India with her family] and the profoundly thoughtful and tender touch of Renoir.
Famously, the great Indian director Satyajit Ray joined the production of The River as a location scout. During his time working with Renoir, he outlined an idea for a film of his own, Pather Panchali, which would later become the first title in one of cinema's great trilogies. Of course, he's not the only great filmmaker to cite Renoir as a major influence on him. Orson Welles wrote an obituary of sorts for the Los Angeles Times upon Renoir’s death in 1979, explaining the man’s genius in just 2,000 words. [You can read the story about how this piece came about here. It was the last thing Welles ever published.] Francois Truffaut completed a book on Renoir’s career following the death of his mentor, Andre Bazin, who began the project.
And in a video, Martin Scorsese recalls the formative experience of seeing The River at the age of nine in New York with his father. “Alongside The Red Shoes, it's one of the most beautiful color films ever made … and it was one of my first introductions to a foreign culture,” he says.
I’m thrilled that, alongside my colleagues, we’ll be sharing this transformative film with you this week. Maybe it’s one you’ve never heard. Perhaps something that’s sat on your shelf or in a queue somewhere for a while. Better still, maybe you’re a deep admirer like I am. Whatever the case, I hope you’ll find something on the site this week that you enjoy and that makes you appreciate Renoir on a new level.
Here are the essays you can expect this week:
- A dive into Renoir's filmography of lesser known masterpieces
- Scene analysis of Harriet's story of Vishnu
- Related Review of Ray's Pather Panchali
- Our regular streaming recommendations
- And more!