Technicolor Vistas and Clichéd Exotica in Restored Renoir

Woman on the beach: Radha Shri Ram
photo: Janus Film
Woman on the beach: Radha Shri Ram

Well-heeled with decades of kudos (and citations from the André Bazin army), Jean Renoir's The River (1951) makes a restored-print reappearance, ready to seduce newbies who've only seen it on video and for whom its Michael Powell–esque Technicolor vistas of Indian landscape, brooding with mottled shadow and glowing flesh, could be a revelation. (It was shot by Renoir's nephew Claude.) Adapting Rumer Godden's novel about a Brit-colonial girlhood spent on the banks of the Ganges amid swarming siblings, pure-hearted locals, and a certain visiting veteran (the forgettable Thomas E. Breen), Renoir fashioned what might be his sweetest movie about family and one of the post-war years' most serene cinematic statements. Many old-school cinephiles would trade most of the last two decades of movies for the courting scene on the dark stairwell, where the young pilot unconsciously swats the moths alighting in Adrienne Corri's thick, red hair. Still, Godden's story and narration are thick with clichéd exotica, and 21st-century viewers can be forgiven for being perturbed by the Euro-white condescension and pre-feminist ickiness on display. It may be minor Renoir in the end, but all considerations wither in the shadow of his optimistic humanism, an indomitable sensibility dedicated to the warm bounce and emotional intercourse of love-born relationships.

 
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