Of Time and the River
If a word does not exist for something so beautifully innocent and innocently beautiful that its peaceful wisdom transcends reality, it ought to. Son of Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir and an influence on postwar Italy’s neorealism and on directors as disparate as Satyajit Ray and James Ivory, Jean Renoir was not blind to the bloody oppression that had underpinned British India, the Raj of two centuries less a decade. The River/Le Fleuve (on which Ray assisted), his and India’s first color film, photographed by brother Pierre’s son Claude (and now available in high-definition transfer of the Academy Film Archive’s 2004 restoration), is above temporal reality.
Set for August 3-11 at Lincoln Center, on its surface a bittersweet coming-of-age tale of three young ladies that gives equal time to semi-documentary celebration of the physical and spiritual glory of the jewel in Britain’s crown, this ninety-nine-minute poetic metaphor was scripted by the director and Rumer Godden from the latter’s 1946 novel. In addition to introducing Anglo-Indian Melanie (dancer Radha Shri Ram) to balance British sisters resident in Bengal, Valerie and Harriet (Adrienne Corri, Patricia Walters), they included the latter’s folk-story-within-a-story of birth-growth-birth as a capsule of the whole and used her hindsight voiceovers (by June Hillman) to convey the novel’s third-person mature writer’s point of view.
Noted for imagery and visuals, rhythms, deep-focus integration of characters with background, and atmosphere, rather than for coaxing the best from his actors -- as here, often mixed with non-professionals -- Renoir plays the story out against the unnamed “one of many holy rivers” on its eternal, finally homeward, path. Water, flowing water, and thus the flux of time, is among the very oldest of metaphor realities in mythology, literature and music, and, as part of the life cycle, had fascinated him for the quarter century since his first film, La Fille de l’eau/Whirlpool of Fate. This, his first following “seven years of unrealized works, hopes, and . . . of deceptions too” in America, did not reopen disaffected Hollywood coffers, and disappointed backers and a public ready for elephants and tigers, but time and re-viewing have shown that it is much more than what they then thought they asked for.
In wonderful “unfringed” Technicolor and locations scouted by the director’s habitual art director, Eugène Lourié, the rich pulse of the subcontinent is a realized character in its own right, a backdrop for, but not subservient to, the rites of passage to womanhood of the two eldest of numerous Big House children (the rest uncredited) of one-eyed English jute press manager Father (Esmond Knight, who had lost an eye in the naval engagement to sink the Bismark) and loving, dutiful, pregnant again Mother (Nora Swinburne).
Innocent but already dreamily romantic, Valerie is a red-haired beauty (like Renoir’s first, actress wife, once Auguste’s model, Andrée Heuchling/Catherine Hessling), while younger narrator Harriet is the buck-toothed ugly adolescent duckling hoping to emerge a swan. Revering the memory of his Indian wife, widower neighbor Mr. John (Arthur Shields) is comforted by the return of daughter Melanie from convent-school and the arrival of young cousin Capt. John (Thomas E. Breen). Also a redhead, the chain-smoking latter is world-weary, limping in search of his place after the War which cost him a limb. On his “pretending leg,” he is out of fairy tale for the girls, “who love a hero, it’s so romantic.”
What will follow hardly matters, does it, given the setup. Indeed, the director admitted to seeing “no apparent plot, but an intense, may we say, inner action.” At one moment, the American captain leans unwillingly but ever so slightly towards Valerie, at another to the more level-headed but cynical Melanie, and following an extreme situation he even embraces Harriet as one would a confused child.
How things are brought to resolution is beside the point. Loss, death (through the agency of another, maybe symbolic, creature of nature), an attempt at suicide, a departure, a newborn’s cry, are the pattern that always has been. Of the manifestations of Hinduism’s godhead, Kali the Black One is in especial singled out; many-armed goddess of disease, death and destruction, patroness of the Thugs, she travels an eternal path from annihilation to rebirth. Renoir’s theme, the river and the deity, is just that. His subject, “may we say,” is Life.
(Released by United Artists; not rated by MPAA.)