Sunday, June 04, 2006

The River


Dir: Jean Renoir (Rules of the Game; The Golden Coach; Grand Illusion)

I have said this before, but the Renoir family has perhaps the most artistically talented gene pool in history: the father a genius painter, the son widely considered one of the greatest film directors ever, the nephew a gifted cinematographer. All this despite being French. I know Marcus is high on Bergman as best ever, but I believe Renoir's complete cinematic opus might be comparable in quality and artistry. The River is a late Renoir film, and his first shot in color (and perhaps the first shot in English) and filmed entirely on location in India.

Harriet is the eldest daughter of five children, four girls and one boy, from a British family living in India. She is our narrator reflecting on her experiences as a teenager smitten with an injured American serviceman who stays with the neighbors, a British widower and his mixed race daughter who returns from boarding school. Unfortunately for Harriet, all the local ladies are quite fond of the American. The American, who lost his leg in an unnamed war (presumably WW II), is rather despondent but caring, uncertain of his place in world. Ostensibly, the narrative is a coming of age story for a young lady. However, the story speaks to the social complexity of waning British colonialism and the ascension of a new global superpower. Each character reflects the fascinations and dangers that often accompany the confluence of two cultures: one dominant but curious, the other submissive but seductive. Normally, I am not a fan of voiceovers, but it is a curious decision for a French director attempting to negotiate the relationship between the British and the Indians. Harriet is the most thoughtful and poetic of all the characters, certainly a byproduct of her being our narrative anchor, but it is from that perspective we avoid the condescension and myopia often present in imperialist narratives.

The acting is poignant yet subtle and the dialogue lyrical. However, my favorite character is India. The rich Technicolor film stock creates luminous hues that jump of the screen. Renoir did not have a dolly, so the mise en scene had to create the motion, and his nephew's keen framing and exquisite set designs demonstrated how simple camera motions can not substitute for gorgeous settings. The river, I believe it is the Bengal and not the Ganges, as one would guess, is the film's lietmotif: it is both everpresent and reliable, but in constant motion washing away time and change.

This is one of Martin Scorsese's favorite films, and easily his favorite Renoir (he likes Rules of the Game, but it does not resonate with him in the same way; so Marcus, you and Marty are on the same page). It may not be my favorite Renoir, but that is like saying I prefer the Ninth to the Fifth.


Blogger paroske noted on 6/06/2006 10:04:00 AM that...

Really, better than Bergman? I mean, really?

I haven't seen enough renoir to prove you wrong right now. But, really?


Blogger ronvon2 noted on 6/06/2006 12:38:00 PM that...

I did not say better, comparable. I will not get sucked into an argument where the only ground is to speak ill of Ingmar (we virtually share a birthday). Bergman cites Renoir as an influence, you know, and Bergman is one of the greatest ever. But, I do have a lot of folks that will back me up on my claim (both perhaps top 5 ever). Your lower casing of Renoir's last name, though, speaks volumes, Mr. Francophobe.