mon 27/09/2021

Blu-ray: The River | reviews, news & interviews

Blu-ray: The River

Blu-ray: The River

When Technicolour really was glorious: Jean Renoir in India

Radha Burnier, Patricia Walters and Adrienne Corri in 'The River'© Beta Film

The cinema fan in your life is going to thank you for this one. The BFI’s new two-disc Blu-ray version of Jean Renoir’s 1951 The River, filmed in India, is absolutely packed with extras: no fewer than six other offerings, including a 90-minute "documentary film-fiction hybrid" by Roberto Rossellini, an hour-long documentary, and even some early 20th century footage from India.

There are interviews and essays, including an important and beautifully written one by Satyajit Ray, whose own film-making career was kickstarted by his involvement in the filming of The River. All this fascinating material helps to set Jean Renoir’s own favourite of his own films in context and to elucidate the extraordinary story of how it came to be made.

The River itself is from a time when the words "glorious" and "Technicolour" were being heard together for the first time, and one can see why in this print. It was the first film in colour directed by Renoir, son of the painter Pierre-Auguste, who was ably assisted by his lighting cameraman nephew, Claude. Renoir’s delight in using colour is understandable; it is passionate and palpable throughout. Renoir pursued his fascination with the novel by Rumer Godden (also interviewed in the documentary and again in the accompanying 32-page booklet) to depict what he called “an English family living in India like a plum on a pear tree”.

BFI disc coverThe film is, then, a piece of history, and of its time. India is seen through Western eyes. It is a coming-of-age story about a white family, and the Indian setting and the people, though lovingly photographed, are essentially a backdrop, enhanced by superb use of some very fine Indian music. Indeed, the BFI has put in a disclaimer to precede the second disc, using wording that is precise, legal and deft: “The films on this disc contain footage of colonial and newly independent India that was shot by Western filmmakers between 1899 to (sic) 1956. BFI does not endorse the views reflected in the presentation or align itself with them. BFI seeks to provide historically relevant depictions of our past..."

As an auteur and a free spirit, Renoir was living in Hollywood. His relationship with the studio system seemed hopelessly broken and his career felt washed up. Some of the energy – and more important, the money – for The River came from an unlikely source, Kenneth McEldowney, the owner of Beverly Hills’ (and the world’s) first drive-in florist.

Filming took more than six months by the Ganges, at a time when Calcutta was still literally on fire in the aftermath of independence and partition. There were endless issues to be laboriously resolved. Attempts were made to hire stars, but the cast were mostly unknowns. McEldowney and Renoir’s relationship started like a fairy story, but ended up with them communicating through lawyers. Nevertheless, the film did end up winning the International prize at the 1951 Venice Film Festival. This release marks the 70th anniversary of that triumph.

The River has been a firm favourite of Martin Scorsese since he was nine years old. He has said that “this and The Red Shoes are the two most beautiful colour films ever made... A film without a real story that is all about the rhythm of existence, the cycles of birth and death and regeneration, and the transitory beauty of the world… Like the Ganges river itself, the picture just flows".

@sebscotney

It is a coming-of-age story about a white family, and the Indian setting and the people, though lovingly photographed, are essentially a backdrop

rating

Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters