It is certain that all their lives are separated from India; you never hear a conversation between Mélanie and her Indian suitor, or between Bogey and her Indian playmate, and the nanny is limited to nannyisms; she didn’t even receive the Indian titleayahby which all nannies were known. The scenes of the real India outside the enclosure are mostly in the far shot.
The film is not built around high melodrama, but its deepest feelings are expressed when the two strangers, Melanie and Captain John, talk to each other, almost in code. Melanie has an enchanted scene in which she tells a story about meeting Prince Krishna and his wife, named Radha. Actress Radha was a dancer, and her character’s story culminates in a dance scene that allows some of the color and mystery of Indian religion to enter the seclusion of the British family compound.
“The River” and “The Red Shoes” by Michael Powell are “the two most beautiful color films ever made,” said Martin Scorsese in an interview on the new Criterion DVD of the restored copy. I first saw the film when the 35mm personal copy of Scorsese premiered at the Virginia Film Festival a few years ago; when I told him about it, he said, “I watch this movie three times a year. Sometimes four.”
On the DVD, he says he hits it more powerfully than “Rules of the Game,” considered Renoir’s masterpiece. Some will agree, others will not. “The River” is like an Ozu movie in the way he views life without trying to force it into a plot. During the year, the girls fall in love with the same unavailable man, there is a death and a birth, and the river continues to flow.
Renoir, son of the impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, made his first film in 1924 and was considered a great teacher when he fled the Nazis and moved to Hollywood in 1941. There he worked with mixed success until ‘At, by the time he made “The River,” he was almost unemployable. The film was funded by an outsider, Kenneth McEldowney, a Hollywood florist who loved Godden’s novel.
Renoir insisted on filming it in India, which he did with his nephew Claude Renoir as cameraman (and young Satyajit Ray as assistant director). It was the first Technicolor film made in India. The budget was small. There were no stars and some players had never played before. Much of the atmosphere stems from Renoir’s documentary footage, showing a bazaar, life along the river, annual festivals, boatmen at work, and Hindus descending both tall and humble stairs to bathe and pray in the water.