Home Video Hovel: The River, by David Bax
Based on the strength of its imagery alone, Jean Renoir’s The River would be more than worth the cost of the Blu-ray. The depth of color and details of the Indian location photography and the texture of the transfer are arguments in favor of the format itself. The River is even more than than, though. It is also one of the more honest coming of age stories ever committed to celluloid.
Renoir’s story is that of three girls living in Bengal, India (two of them the daughters of British expats), who each become enamored with an American soldier who comes to visit. Friendships are tested and prejudices are stoked while the girls learn about themselves and the world in which they live.
The story may sound similar to that of Black Narcissus, which was only four years old at the time but The River has none of the fever pitch melodrama of Powell and Pressburger’s masterpiece. Renoir favors psychological verisimilitude, allowing the very nature of adolescence to heighten the stakes. These may be only young girls going through the same things many young girls do but nevertheless emotional danger lies always in wait like the cobra among the roots of the tree in one family’s yard.
When Renoir does break from his narrative throughline, it’s in one of two directions. When one of the girls reads a story she’s written, the film becomes a bright, magical and gorgeous dance. Conversely, Renoir includes footage of the men who work the river that is essentially documentary.
The beautiful voiceover narration that accompanies the film includes many descriptions of that river and how it nourishes the people who live and work alongside it both physically and spiritually. That’s the key to The River, as well, a story of growth of both the body and the spirit.
Special features include an introduction by Jean Renoir from 1962, a documentary about the making of the film, an interview with Martin Scorsese, an interview with producer Ken McEldowney, a video essay and a booklet including an essay by Ian Christie and notes on the film by Renoir.