The River (1951)

"Weak"

The River (1951) Review


People talk about The River in the same hushed tones they reserve for Citizen Kane and Grand Illusion, Renoir's best-known film.

It's definitely a lot of firsts: Renoir's first English film, and his first color film. The River is a movie about India -- shot on the Ganges River and telling the story of three teenage girls who fall for the same man (the mysterious stranger in town), to various degrees.

Renoir's film is often described as sweepingly beautiful (which it isn't), a love affair to India (which it is), and a masterful love story (which it doesn't remotely approach). Though proponents always comment about River's Technicolor majesty -- which are absurdly overwrought in their praise -- few bother to talk about The River's story. That's because there isn't much of one, and what is there simply isn't very good. Jean Renoir's greatest films -- Grand Illusion, The Rules of the Game, The Lower Depths -- don't involve weepy schoolgirls and their snaggletooth parents. Renoir doesn't know what to do with a romance, and he's got no business turning an Indian girl's memoir into a movie.

And so discussion invariably turns back to how beautiful The River is, but I really don't see that either. The Technicolor -- even on Criterion's restored print -- is still chalky and pastel. And just because a few Indian girls throw colored dust into the air and run around under it, it doesn't make your film great.

No doubt this panning of The River will bring me hate mail -- and while I'll submit that the girls (unknowns, all of them) act well and can genuinely create some emotional energy in the movie, it's the story of The River that's an absolute dud -- and in the end, that's what it's all about. (As a side note, the film has also been accused of being racist.)

Criterion adds an interview with Martin Scorsese (one of the film's biggest supporters), an interview with producer Ken McEldowney, introduction by Renoir, and a documentary about author Rumer Godden and her 1995 trip back to India.

Aka Le Fleuve.



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