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The River, 1951, Jean Renoir

“The River had it’s own life, fishes and porpoise, turtles and birds, and people who were born and lived and died on it “ – Older Harriet

With The River, Jean Renoir is portraying two Indias. The native India is one of mystique and mystery to a westerner, but also one of serenity and a dedication to tradition. It is clear that he has fallen in love with that India (and he would later admit as much). The other India is the white upper class, post-colonial India, which Renoir may identify with as a westerner, but he seems to have mixed feelings about this India and portrays the characters as lost and confused.

the river men on boats

the river steps

Renoir uses documentary footage to show the real India and how the people live around the Ganges. In narration, we are told about “the animals and the people who lived and died near it.” We see people working on the boats; we see playing children descending stairs that reach into the river; we see people relaxing along the banks. The river is not only a place for sustenance, but it is also a place for escapism. The river is integral to the lives of the locals.

The Snake Charmer

The Snake Charmer

As for the English family that serves as the protagonists, they stay at arms length from the culture at which they are occupying, yet they are not disdainful. They respect and appreciate the traditions. The father prefers to walk through the bazaar on his way home and haggle over merchandise even though it is out of his way. The younger boy is fixated on snake charmers and wishes to learn their secrets. The English girls and Captain John are less attentive of their surroundings, and more concerned with their own distractions and affairs. They are “coming of age” in their own way while the river and the culture are relegated to the background.

The film has a great deal of voice-over narration, from Harriett, the English child protagonist, reflecting on her story of her first love presumably as an adult. It is her narration that we see both Indias, her insular version and the real one, yet she is educated and enamored by the true India and the magnetic lure of the river. This could mean that as part of her coming of age, she later came to an education and understanding of how special her surroundings really were, and how much the river influenced her life.

Harriet looking at John.

Harriet looking at John.

The primary white protagonists are Harriet, Valerie, and Captain John, and they form a sort of love triangle. Captain John has only one leg and is taking refuge in a foreign land as a way of escaping, a houseguest of their neighbor, Mr. John. He quickly befriends the family and the young girls. Harriet and Valerie both develop a crush on him, although they pursue it in different ways. Harriet is far too young for John, and hers is more of the fleeting girl crush. Valerie is older, who is not one of the family, but as an only child of a local businessman, she spends much of her days with Harriet’s family. She pursues John as a form of game, and she even toys with him and his affliction In one cruel scenario, she encourages John to play a game of catch and causes him to injure himself. Whether or not her heart is really into the affair is up in the air, but there is no doubt about Harriet. She is enamored by the visitor.

the river Krishna story 1

the river krishna story 2

The white family has Indian connections. Dr. John has a mixed race daughter, Melanie, from a deceased Indian wife. Melanie serves as the mechanism for introducing Indian culture into the film, including a lovely fairy-tale diversion into the background of the God Krishna. Melanie also represents the contrast of both cultures. She has an English-centric upbringing, but as she gets older, she embraces her native culture. She even insists on wearing a Sari permanently. Bogey, Harriet’s younger brother, has a young Indian friend who encourages his foray into Indian culture and will be present for a later, game-changing scene.

The Girls

The Girls

These younger characters are all lost in a foreign land. In this way Renoir seems to be contrasting the privileged white class against the comfortable locals. Harriet is lost in love, which is a fruitless pursuit given the age difference. Valerie is lost in herself, and is more capricious as a teenage, only child, yet that does not seem to be an aspect of her person that she is proud of. Captain John is completely lost. He is coming to terms with his loss of a leg and being less of a man after the war, and has wandered from place to place, unsuccessfully trying to find somewhere he belongs. The least lost is Melanie, although based on her multi-cultural upbringing, she could have been portrayed as being the most confused. Even though in one sequence, she says to her father “someday I shall find out where I belong,” but she appears to have found it. She is resolute in embracing her native culture, while still embracing the love for her father and friendship with Captain John. Even though she is not squarely placed within the love triangle, it seems most appropriate that she end up with the visitor.

the river fireworks

the river adults

The heart of the movie is when the Indian traditions are shown. Here Renoir slows down the pacing and backs away from the narrative. It shows the real India, while also fragmenting the movie. The foolish meanderings of the young girls and their rivaling affections for Captain John seem to be insignificant compared to the beauty of the culture around them, which has been around for thousands of years compared to the teenage years of Harriet and Valerie. The previously mentioned Krishna story and the Hindu Festival with 100,000 lamps are when the film is the most pleasant, relaxing, and the most beautiful. Even though the coming of age stories are interesting, they pale compared to the story of the real India that Renoir puts so much care and love into showing us.

It is worth mentioning that Satyajit Ray and Subatra Mitra worked as Assistant Directors on the film. They were undoubtedly influenced by the work, and even though their later work would be unquestionably Indian, you can see some of the pacing and the mixture of documentary footage with narrative in their narrative films. I can see a lot of similarities between The River and The Apu Trilogy. The Renoir film is worth praise in its own right, but it also deserves credit for influencing the career of the man who would be called “The Father of Indian Cinema.”

Film Rating: 8.5/10

the orange tree


Supplements

Jean Renoir Introduction:

The idea came to him when he was reading book reviews. He saw a glowing review of a book about India. He read the book and was convinced. All of the studios rejected him, thinking that a movie in India required tigers, Bengal lancers, or elephants. He then met an Indian florist that wanted to get into film. It was difficult at the time because Europeans and Americans did not understand Indian issues, so they had to film India through English eyes.

He heard about Rumer Godden, who was English but was born and lived in India. Renoir acquired the option before they met. They flew to India to make sure it was acceptable to shoot there, and Renoir was bowled over. He loved the country.


Martin Scorsese: 2004 Interview.

He went to movies with his father during his childhood and he describes this as one of “the most formative” experiences he had, and he compares it to The Red Shoes as the two best classic films in color. It was the first Renoir in color and the first Indian film in color.

India had a terrific canvas for color primarily because of the vegetation on the bank of the river. Many of the scenes he thought were reminiscent of a watercolor painting by Renoir’s father. Renoir apparently took a long time to arrange shots in a certain way, so possibly that was because of his father’s visual style.


Around the River: 2008 documentary about The River by Arnaud Mandagaran.

In a 1958 biography, Renoir called The River the favorite of his films. After Rules of the Game failed, he left France, made six films in the USA and then RKO dropped him after the failure of The Woman on the Beach. He left for India in 1949.

Kenneth McEldowney, producer, talks about his experience behind the film. He was first looking at one book, then that author recommended The River. He found that Renoir had the rights although he was not going to do anything with them. Renoir’s only condition was that he get a paid trip to India to make sure he wanted to shoot there, and he fell in love. Rumer Godden had also written Black Narcissus, and hated that it was shot entirely in a studio. She wanted Renoir to shoot in India.

Satyajit Ray worked up courage to ask for Renoir at hotel reception desk. He told the famous director that he was a great admirer of his, and Renoir was very nice. Ray “pestered him with questions, but he was very patient.” Asked him about French films, his father, and just about everything he could think of. Ray told him that he would like to make a film and described Pather Panchali.

Alain Renoir – His father had problems with the screenwriters. They would write something, and then he would film something completely different. Most became infuriated with him. Rumer Godden was the exception because she knew the country and the culture. This was one of the few occasions that Renoir and the writer collaborated well.

As for the Indian elements, they were unquestionably Renoir. He saw Rahda dance and wanted to meet her. The role of the mixed race Indian was not in the book, but was invented to bring more of India into the film and cast Rahda as Melanie. They found from the previews that Captain John was not sympathetic and the children acting was not as strong, so they over-emphasized the cultural moments and river sequences, which I think turned out to be a good move.


Jean Renoir: A Passage Through India: 2014 Criterion visual essay.

Water was a metaphor for life in Renoir’s work, and this was quite a good fit for him. He had been criticized for not returning to France after the war, but after The River, Renoir considered himself beyond nationalism.

The River was always his favorite because it finally made him an international director.

At one ceremony for Ray, it was said that Ray owed everything to Renoir. The elder director scoffed and said he owed nothing to him, and that he was the father of Indian cinema. Ray’s reaction was not recorded, but he later named Renoir as one of his major influences.

Criterion Rating: 9/10

A Day in the Country, Renoir, 1936

Even if Renoir’s A Day in the Country is barely over 40-minutes long, was unfinished and lost for 10 years before being edited for release, it is still one of the quintessential representations of 1930s French Poetic Realism. The setting out in the country and the focus on being in nature and how the characters react to their surroundings is the poetic element. This is particularly revealed through the eyes of Henri and Henriette, both hopeless romantics who are looking for something poetic to distract them. The realistic element is the way that the plot unfolds. Rather than give away the ending in this post, because I implore people to watch this accessible Renoir, I’ll just say that realism means things don’t always work out the way people want or hope for.

A Day in the Country is a joyous movie, although two different versions of joy are juxtaposed against one another. A Parisian family wants to escape from the stuffy Paris, get some oxygen, and enjoy the luscious and beautiful French countryside. The joy for Henri and Rudolphe, two scheming locals, is having a group of Parisians to take advantage, specifically the young women. They are enthralled as the youngest, Henrietta, swings gracefully on a swing.

Given the short film length, not much time is spent on character exposition, but aside from a few details, it isn’t necessary. The characters of Rudolphe and Henri are explored as they sit in the café. Rudolphe considers himself a player, and ridicules Henri for being a serious man that wants a serious relationship. “Whores bore me, society girls are even worse,” Henri says. He is a serious romantic. You can tell this not only from the words he says, but his demeanor as he says them. Romance is not a joyous topic for him, as he has yet to find someone who shares his ideals.

the men lure

Much of the film’s comedy is related to the double meaning of catching fish. The patriarch, Monsieur Dufour and his future son-in-law Anatole are obsessed with bringing a fish back to Paris to fry. Meanwhile, Rudolphe and Henri hatch a plan to lure the two women away from their family for their own amusement. After the two men talk in the café about their plans to catch the ladies, the scene cuts to the other men talking about fish. These two conversations can be contrasted, even if they are on completely different subjects. Monsieur Dufour is explaining to Anatole, who isn’t the brightest bulb, about the nuances of the fish they plan to catch, specifically the difference between the chub and the pike. Anatole is lost when it comes to fishing, whereas Henri is lost with love. Rudolph and Monsieur Dufour are the self-proclaimed experts.

ladies and nature

When the two women talk, it is a variation of the men’s conversation, only the subject isn’t about catching fish, men, or women. The younger Henriette reveals herself as a romantic and has a love of nature. She is enraptured by her surroundings, and enjoys herself, whether she is on a swing, a skiff, or just lying on the grass. As they explore the potential for riding in a boat, she leaves her hat to save their picnic spot. This gives the men their ‘bait.’ It works and the entire family warms to the two men instantly, setting their plans in motion.

The men get the attention of the women and find some common ground. They get along splendidly. Madame Dufour is outgoing, giggly, and easily plays into the charms of the men. Henriette is still an introvert, but she is excitable about having a good time in nature, especially if she has the opportunity to ride in a boat. To lure the men to agree to let go of their women, they bring fishing poles. The Dufours consider them kind gentlemen, and naively let them do as they please with their women.

trusting family

Rudolphe was hoping for Henrietta, and had arranged as much with his buddy, but then Henri manipulates the situation and gets her into his skiff. He sees something in Henriette that he sees in himself, and he is not going to let his mischievous friend take advantage.

The character contrasts are distinct, but they make the film even more enjoyable down the stretch. Rudolphe and Madame Dufour are both outgoing, playful, and they have fun with the adventure of the chase. Henri and Henriette are also similar. They are demure and romantics. Henriette is swept up in excitement as they row along the Seine. Henri has his mind on something different altogether, and when she begins to figure this out, she is reticent to continue. If not for crossing paths with their counterparts, who are loudly and boisterously having a great time, things might not progress. They do, however, and if not for a chirping bird, they may not have gone further.

a little bird

The last few minutes are abbreviated because the film wasn’t finished. They work as a conclusion to this short film, but if Renoir’s vision of three connected short films had come to fruition, this could have been among his masterpieces. Even at the abbreviated length, I consider this to be one of his strongest works, and the story behind the story is almost as captivating as the film itself.

This was a pivotal period in Renoir’s career. He had already become an established star director, and he had become more comfortable in his craft. In A Day in the Country , you can see him exploring techniques that would result in his finest films, like La Grande Illusion, La Bete Humaine, and Rules of the Game. He plays with deep focus photography for many scenes, such as when the men are talking in the café and a swinging Henriette is framed by the window. This technique would be mastered in later films, most notably Rules of the Game. He had become deft at exploring character contrasts, which he did so terrifically in La Grande Illusion.

Deep focus example

Deep focus example

A Day in the Country stands on its own as one of Renoir’s greatest achievements, but it is also evidence of a master that was progressing in his craft.

Film Rating: 9.5/10

Supplements:

Renior Introduction: The initial idea was to shoot a 40-minute short film with the production value and acting talent as a feature. He wanted to shoot three shorts of that length, which in sum would become a feature. This sort of omnibus feature had not been done by then, but has since.

In a weird digression, Renoir argues for plagiarism. I don’t think he means it the way we understand the term. He means using stories as templates to embellish into a different story, and that has and is regularly done today. I can only speculate that back then, people thought it took nerve to alter a story by someone as heralded as de Maupassant.


The Road to A Day in the Country: This is a piece from Jean Renoir scholar Christopher Faulkner.

1935 he was very active with the popular front, militantly active. While he was leading the popular front and making films (like The Lower Depths) in the language of the movement, he made this one that seemed out of time politically.

Part of this was his coming to terms with his father, the famous painter, whose legacy likely continued to overshadow Renoir’s directorial career. Faulkner thinks this is a resolution with the past that he would return to frequently. The area that they filmed was an area that impressionist painters had worked in the 1880s. Many shots were homages to impressionist paintings.

The riverbank could be an impressionist painting.

The riverbank could be an impressionist painting.

Rain interfered and slowed down production. It took seven weeks, only 22 days of which were dedicated to shooting. Faulkner disagrees with Renoir’s assertion that they changed script due to rain. There was evidence that they had written in rain. Nevertheless, the rain did shut down production and cost money. Jacques Becker shot some material later when Renoir was not available. 23 shots in the completed film were shot by Becker, but according to Renoir’s instructions.

Producer Pierre Braunberger was Jewish and had to leave the country when war broke out, and had to take all his belongings including the film. He edited it in his mind during his exile, but it could not be seen until 10 years later when the war ended.

Marinette Cadix and Marguerite Renoir later edited the film into what we see today.

By the time of the release, Renoir was in the USA and basically forgot the movie. He had nothing to do with the final editing of the film.


Pierre Braunberger on Jean Renoir: They had worked on a great number of Jean’s early works. He speaks reverentially of Renoir. He made A Day in the Country for Sylvia Battaille, who he was in love with.

He talks about the rain and production problems. Both Renoir and Battaille got sick of it, and they shut down the film. They had hoped to finish the film, but the war and exile changed those plans. When he was hiding on an island, he had a lot of time to think. In his solitude, he realized that he could finish the film with two titles cards. Voila.


Un Tournage a la Campagne: This is a long series (1:29) of scenes and outtakes from the production. Some of them add scenes or extend scenes included in the movie, but the majority are in sequence of what we see in the finished film. They show some of the filmmaking process, with the setting of the scene, calling action, and other background set details. They even show mistakes by the actors and/or crew. There are some sequences that are significantly longer, such as the swinging scene. What’s interesting is they had a lot more footage to make a longer film. Some of the footage is of poor quality. Some even has no sound, probably because it was going to be added in later.

One thing that is impressive about all of these outtakes is the skill of the actors. We can see take after take of them giving their all. I was mostly impressed by Battaille, who on a moment’s notice could turn on the childlike giddiness or enraptured romanticism.

Renoir appears prominently in these outtakes. You can always hear his voice in the background and he is encouraging. Even though I enjoyed the entire series (although many might find it long), I especially liked the tribute to Renoir in the end credits where they show outtakes of people saying “Here is the boss.”


Renoir at Work: Christopher Faulkner examines the outtakes of the film. This is the only set of outtakes for any Renoir film, so they are important to see how he worked.

We see how Renoir interacts with the actors, and starts the scene by using the first line of dialog and he praises the shot. This is how he became “an actor’s director.”

Some of the later scenes are after Renoir had left for The Lower Depths and Becker had taken over. We can tell that Becker followed Renoir’s instructions.


Screen Tests: These are a series of screen tests with all (or most) of the actors. The initial scenes of Henri and Henriette are mere impressions, as they quietly react to each other.

The mother, father, future son-in-law, grandmother (man in women’s clothing) are just looking at the camera and around. Even Renoir gets a screen test.


Some have expressed reservation about Criterion publishing what is essentially a film short, but there is so much extra material here that isn’t characteristic of classic film. We get spoiled by releases of recent films, such as the Wes Anderson collection, all of which have a ton of supplements. A Day in the Country has nearly the same volume of supplemental material, which is a rarity for a classic French film.

Even though this is an early release, it has such great supplements and import that it is an early contender for release of the year.

Criterion Rating: 10/10