The River

“…that’s the well that doesn’t dry up, is the Renoir cinema.”

~ Martin Scorsese

Jean Renoir is my favorite filmmaker. I say that knowing my preferences could change, and I also have deep currents of love for the work of several other filmmakers, but each time I watch a Renoir film I am reminded why I like his work so much. There are so many obvious qualities to his films, but with Renoir there are also qualities that seem impossible to define and yet you know they are there; something in your heart or gut tells you so. I think this is because his filmmaking is rooted first and foremost in his interest for humanity over and above filmmaking. Filmmaking is Renoir’s tool, but humanity is his subject.

Renoir on the set of The River

In 1951 Renoir shot his first color film, The River. The story is set in India and is based on an autobiographical novel (and screenplay) by Rumer Godden. The story is a coming of age tale about three young women as told by one. It is also a tale of life in India as told by the child of a British colonialist family. And it is a moral tale of priorities, of a tragedy when infatuation trumps love.

I don’t write film reviews, and I am not a critic in any formal sense. I do, however, want to draw some attention to a scene that is so perfectly Renoir in its timing, tone, and love for his characters.

One can argue that the scene is the climactic scene of the the film, although it is not the only climax. The scene consists of a series of vignettes of the family and its servants asleep in the heat of midday. In each shot the camera either dollies in or out (so the screengrabs don’t do them justice), giving each shot a kind of dreamy movement concomitant with the subject, which includes both the individuals sleeping and a picture of a particular kind of life.

Here we have the pregnant mother:

Doesn’t that image, the way she is posed, the book dropped to the floor but still in her hand, the warm colors, evoke the kinds of images Renoir’s father used to paint?

The rest of the vignettes are similar.

Each of these vignettes has the camera moving in and through the image, composing as it goes, drawing our attention more deeply into the world of the characters. The stringing together of these shots also sets up a kind of emotional pacing that then “pays off” when a horrible tragedy is discovered, a tragedy that was set up earlier in the film and then reinforced just before this series of shots. [I would say more, but I don’t want to spoil the film, even though great films truly cannot be spoiled.]

There is something marvelous in the way Renoir sets up the tragedy. One could say that death comes because others are not paying attention, that they are thinking of themselves. And that is true. But Renoir never finds too much fault in his characters. Renoir’s humanism is one of subtlety and mercy. He finds both righteousness and sinfulness in all his characters. I wrote some about this in my post on Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning.

Renoir was a master filmmaker. His two touted masterpieces, The Rules of the Game (1939) and The Grand Illusion (1937), show him at a summit of sorts. And yet, take a look at his other films, The Golden Coach (1953) for example, or French Cancan (1954), or films such as The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936), and one finds additional riches from a great cinematic story teller. There is so much in the Renoir vault. Renoir is truly a well that doesn’t dry up.

4 thoughts on “The River

  1. >Tucker, I was just thinking this weekend that there are 5 filmmakers I love more than any others: Bresson, Bunuel, Renoir, Hitchcock and Ozu. I think Bresson is my favorite and the other four jockey for positions given my mood or the day of the week.If you haven’t yet done so, you must read Renoir’s awesome memoir, My Life and My Films. Here’s a small sample to whet your appetite:”To the question ‘Is cinema an art?’ my answer is, ‘What does it matter?’ You can make films or you can cultivate a garden. Both have as much claim to be called art as a poem by Verlaine or a painting by Delacroix. If your film or your garden is a good one it means that as a practitioner of cinema or gardening you are entitled to consider yourself an artist. The pastry-cook who makes a good cake is an artist. The ploughman with an old-fashioned plough creates a work of art when he ploughs a furrow. Art is not a calling in itself but the way in which one exercises a calling, and also the way in which one performs any human activity. I will give you my definition of art: art is ‘making’. The art of poetry is the art of making poetry. The art of love is the art of making love.”My father never talked to me about art. He could not bear the word. If his children chose to go in for painting, acting or music, they were free to do so, but they must never be pushed. The urge to paint a picture must be so powerful that it could not be resisted. My father said of Mozart, whom he worshipped, ‘He wrote music because he could not prevent himself,’ to which he added, ‘It was like wanting to pee.’ He considered that the mode of expression was unimportant. If Mozart had not made music he would have written poems or planted gardens.”

  2. >Girish, thanks so much for your comments. I have seen that book, but never read it. I am, however, reading and old printing of Renoir, My Father, which is his bio of August R. That is quiet a good read, and I’m sure it has some of the same qualities as his one on his films. I have to say as well that Bresson and Hitchcock are in my top five, as well as Tarkovsky. I’m yet not sure who is the fifth. I need to see more of Bunuel and Ozu, but I have loved what I have seen thus far. Of course, as soon as I make a top five list I want to expand it to a top ten list.

  3. >I’m ashamed to say that I have only seen two Renoir films in my life so far: Rules of the Game (and that was in the film class you did all those years ago, Tuck) and Grand Ilusion. I’m also ashamed to admit that I didn’t care too much for Rules of the Game when I first saw it. What can I say? I plead youthful ignorance (I also didn’t like Battleship Potemkin). I think I was at a place in my life then when I just beginning to become aware of film as an art and not just as a storytelling/entertainment medium. I did really love Grand Illusion though, which I watched more recently, and I suspect/hope that if I were to view both Rules of the Game and Potemkin again I’d be able to enjoy/appreciate them a lot more. You know, Tuck, if you hadn’t mentioned that Renoir was currently your favorite filmmaker, I don’t know for sure that I would’ve been able to guess that because we’ve never really talked about who your favorite filmmaker(s) is/are (although I know we’ve talked about MY favorite quite a bit). I might’ve guessed David Lean (simply for directing Lawrence of Arabia) or Werner Herzog (simply for directing Fitzcarralso). Then again, not too long ago I saw you mention in one of your blogs that Rules of the Game may very well be your all-time favorite film and I tend to think that most of the time there is an understandable connection between a cinephile’s favorite film and their favorite filmmaker. There certainly is in my case.As for my own top 5? Well, the list is a bit more contemporary than yours and Girish’s, but I seem to find myself coming back to Steven Spielberg, Alfred Hitchcock, Woody Allen, Marty Scorsese and the Coen brothers.

  4. >Damian, it does not surprise me that you didn’t like Rules of the Game. In the special features of The River Martin Scorsese talks about the film, and about Renoir. He says that when he saw Rules of the Game he just didn’t get. It took him years and several viewings to appreciate it, and then he still likes other Renoir films more. So you’re in good company.If you want to see other Renoirs, I think you might really like The Golden Coach and Boudu Saved from Drowning.As for Potemkin, it’s a great film in many ways, but its also heavy handed in its aesthetic and tone. I would show it to a film class because of its historical significance, but I would not expect the students to love it. The best way to appreciate it, probably, is to read Eisenstein’s theories on film editing to get a better feel for where he’s coming from.As for your top five filmmakers, your list does not surprise me, especially since we’ve talked. I can get behind each choice. They are all favorites of mine as well. I think I might add Eric Rohmer to round out my top five. The problem is only picking 5.

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