Reviewed by Bryony Dixon
"It is the story of my first love; about growing up on the banks of a wide river. First love must be the same everywhere but the flavour of my story would have been different..."
An older, wiser voice introduces Jean Renoir's 1951 adaptation of Rumer Godden's coming-of-age tale of a teenage girl living with her English family on the banks of the Ganges. I first saw this film on television, and was charmed by the story, which has all the elements of a 'first love' narrative: the arrival of a young man into a group of female rivals for his attention, the young people's embarrassing efforts to appear mature, the juxtaposition of the worlds of children and adults, the occurrence of real tragedy to impose a slap of reality on overheated imaginations. No one writes about the power of adolescent emotion better than Rumer Godden (think of 'Black Narcissus' and 'The Greengage Summer'). But I do remember being puzzled by the lack of engagement between the English and Indian worlds.
Here India seemed to be portrayed as if in a 1950s travelogue. Satyajit Ray, on meeting Renoir during his initial trip to Calcutta, expressed reservations about the lack of Indian characters in the script, but Renoir chose to follow the novel closely. The adult stories that weave through the narrative hint at the deeper problems caused by the exploitative colonial culture, but these are not explored. Acceptance of misfortune or circumstances denotes maturity - an attitude depicted as inherent to Indian culture but something westerners must learn - and this philosophy is embodied in the image of the river. But it's only when you see the film on the big screen that the metaphor becomes clear.
This was Renoir's first colour film and his last American film, shot entirely in India. A new restoration by the Academy Film Archive from original nitrate Technicolor elements, some from the bfi's own archives, revitalises Renoir's achievement and his nephew Claude Renoir's exquisite photography, making sense of the director's stated aim. "I shot ['The River'] so that I could either create a narration, that is, stay with a book-like tone, or else not tell the story and not have any commentary at all. During the little previews, when I saw that the documentary side got good reactions (let's say the poetic side), I decided to go with the semi-narrated form, which permitted me to present certain purely poetic parts without having to back them up with dramatic action and dialogue. The construction of the script was rather loose, rather easy, and allowed for the two solutions."