Unrealistic Colors and Naturalistic Philosophies in Jean Renoir’s ‘The River’

In The River, Renoir transcends his own attractive colors, stumbling into a “realistic” philosophy of nature that the portraiture of color so often forbids.

Putting the documentary aside, the colors of the cinema rarely aspire (or pretend to aspire) to the grand illusions of realism. Because the hues, shades, and intensities of cinematically manufactured color can never replicate what our eyes perceive, filmmakers have become de facto scene-painters rather than philosophers of nature, which would be too burdensome and conceited a role anyway.

Indeed, the earliest color films — a 1900 Cyrano de Bergerac, or the fin de siècle serpentine dances filmed by the Lumière Brothers and Thomas Edison — were literally hand-painted, frame by frame. Fledgling two-strip Technicolor experiments, such as the “orientalist” drama The Toll of the Sea (1923) or the Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler The Black Pirate (1926), suffered from limited palettes of red and green that imbue images with a sickly, spectral aura. Actors imprisoned in the two-strip process always look glowingly nauseous, like victims of an incurable strain of celluloid hepatitis.

The three-strip Technicolor advanced by 1935’s Becky Sharp (a reduction of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair) fleshed out the palette and softened the jaundice, but the process still professed stylization and painted romanticism, not realism.

Hollywood has eagerly capitalized on Technicolor’s aura of painted romanticism. Films as diverse as The Wizard of Oz, Dodge City, and The Quiet Man all long for the ripe colors of sentimental lands unknown to the fated denizens of noir or the alienated sophisticates of screwball. Across the Atlantic, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger tried to turn a roseate palette into a quaint English aesthetic poised to rival postimpressionism (although the mawkishness of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is as suffocating as its oversaturated colors). Even rotten movies like Duel in the Sun and The Egyptian seem like the plush, purple dreams of pleasantly decadent minds.

Only during Hollywood’s brief flirtation with socially-minded realism in the late ’60s and ’70s did mainstream cinema attempt to link color and verisimilitude. But the relatively gritty color of a Panic in Needle Park (1971) or Serpico (1973) gave way to the shopping-mall slickness of the ’80s and early ’90s when sharp, unfeeling colors showed off product placements to conspicuous advantage. Now that digital filmmaking holds sway and shooting on film has become the fetish of old-school romantics, cinema’s palette again glows with sickly yellows and steely greens, as our video age’s metallic aura updates the jaundice of the two-strip processes of the ’20s.

Jean Renoir’s The River (1951), recently issued by Criterion on DVD and Blu-ray, is often lauded as a landmark of color filmmaking, but Renoir avoids the treacly embroidery of Powell and Pressburger and the mythopoetic sheen of, for say, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, for which John Ford drew upon the repertoire of Frederic Remington. Instead, Renoir and his nephew Claude (as cinematographer) use a bright but clean, naturalistic palette that keeps The River’s Indian subject matter from falling into cheap orientalism. Though Renoir’s vision is inevitably linked with the impressionist legacy of his father Auguste, Ian Christie, writing in Criterion’s booklet notes, aptly characterizes the film’s naïve images as “more in the manner of Henri Rousseau’s stylized jungles than of impressionism or fauvism.” The River’s wide-eyed pictorial clarity also stops far short of the impressionistic fervency of Renoir’s studio-bound French Can Can (1954).

Based on the 1946 novel by Rumer Godden (who co-wrote the screenplay), The River tells the lyrical, unaffected story of a British colonial girl’s unrequited love for a visiting American soldier, “Captain John”, who copes with crippling war wounds, both physical and psychic. Flowing around her village is the titular river.

Dotted with temples and providing work for myriad fisherman and stevedores, the river is an eternal current mobilizing the needs of the community but oblivious to the evanescent longings of girlhood. The class disparities between the blithe colonialists and their dark-skinned laborers are abundantly understood but never interrogated. Renoir elides overt social commentary by emphasizing the pictorial harmony between his protagonists and the extras who, toiling in factories or on the docks, are occasionally spotted by his camera and moved from background to foreground. For Raymond Durgnat, Renoir’s mise en scène reveals a certain “democracy [that] exists between ‘important’ and ‘incidental’ events with a shot” (Raymond Durgnat, Jean Renoir, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974, 278), as if foregrounded and ancillary characters unknowingly share the river’s sense of continuous, circuitous flow.

Insulated from the laborers’ bustle, the film’s young heroine, Harriet, distantly views the river’s crossroads, which occasionally welcome disillusioned expatriates like Captain John. An ingenuous diarist and poet, sexually curious and thin-skinned, Harriet is an archetypal heroine of coming-of-age literature, but we know her infatuation with the world-weary John will go nowhere. Also competing for his attentions are an older friend, the outwardly cruel but really insecure Valerie, and Melanie, the mixed-race and casteless daughter of a kindly English industrialist and a departed Bengali woman. Though an upper-caste Bengali boy courts her, Melanie is drawn ambivalently to the sour foreigner, who hobbles around on one leg, emasculated by the war and belonging nowhere.

Harriet is ostensibly the heroine, but the story of her ripening is fairly trite, likely a problem inherited from Godden’s novel (which I haven’t read). Far more interesting is the repressed, taciturn Melanie who, as a mixed-race daughter, sits uneasily at the river’s crossroads, without any preordained place on its banks. She reveals psychological depths foreign to Harriet and Valerie, and shares with the nomadic John a sense of displacement and self-hatred; though decentered, she is the film’s rightful — that is, most complex — moral compass.

The film, which Renoir saw as an extension of the pastoral romance of his Toni (1935), also about a girl finding love in a strange land, features little narrative tension, at least insofar as “tension” is signified by Hollywoodish close-ups and an overbearing score. Contrary to the over-edited, breathless action of Hollywood, Renoir’s “breathing” mise-en-scène lets the camera relax and meditate, allowing viewers to immerse themselves unconsciously in the film. The film lives serenely in a way that today’s prestige films — and in its day, The River was a prestige film — are rarely allowed. One can unwind and even daydream within the film, not having to worry about acknowledging or debating the sense of self-importance that usually attends present-day auteurism. Although The River culminates with an unexpected tragedy, there is still no melodrama; incidental death is treated as naturalistically as omnipresent color, as a life force that occurs as neutrally as the titular river flows, overseeing the villagers’ inexorable cycles of labor, mourning, and revival.

In the symbolism of the impartial river, André Bazin perceived a moral evolution in Renoir’s development as a filmmaker. Abjuring the grotesquerie and sardonicism of Rules of the Game, The River charts “an almost imperceptible modulation of a pervasive eternity” in the lives of its characters, whose introversion is mirrored in the river’s quietude (André Bazin, Jean Renoir, ed. François Truffaut, London and New York: W.H. Allen, 1974, 109). The river’s Hindu circularity stands in stark contrast to the social quagmires of The Rules of the Game, in which, as Bazin says, “The swamps of Sologne reflect… the picaresque silhouettes of the weekend guests,” decadent masqueraders doomed to frustrations of their own making. In The River, by contrast, “the waters of the sacred river… flow without change, cleansing man of his blemishes, mixing his ashes with their silt,” thus signifying the undiscriminating “democracy” Durgnat sees in the film’s all-encompassing mise-en-scène.” (Bazin, 109)

It’s strange to think The River once generated mild controversy, at least in the context of Renoir’s auteurism. Renoir himself remarked that “The River, which looks like one of the most contrived of all my films, is in fact the one nearest to nature,” insofar as it universalizes the director’s “immemorial themes of childhood, love, and death.” (Jean Renoir, My Life and My Films, trans. Norman Denny, New York: Da Capo Press, 1974, 256) However, Bazin thought it necessary to defend The River against a few sanctimonious critics who berated Renoir for turning his back on the class satire of Rules of the Game and antiwar statements of The Grand Illusion in favor of humanist observation and apolitical lyricism. “To reproach [Renoir] for not using this fleeting love story as a vehicle to describe the misery of India or to attack colonialism,” argued Bazin, “is to reproach him for not treating an entirely different subject” (Bazin, 112).

If a Marxist critique of The River seemed misplaced or simply indecent two generations ago, when Bazin was writing, any politicized appraisal of the film today could only be an exercise in tendentiousness or a sophomoric joke — or so decades of criticism and dreamy praise (much of it by French and American filmmakers) would have us think. Harriet’s character is not terribly original, nor is her coming of age particularly enlightening or deserving of the camera’s privilege. Objectively, there is no reason why her plight should supersede those of the film’s nameless, massed laborers, and even if we accept Durgnat’s claim of a “democratically” staged mise-en-scène, this remains an idealized argument, as the film’s characters are never truly equal.

We should not underestimate Renoir, however. Problematically, Bazin’s defense of The River assumes the film is too delicate, too humanitarian, and too “oriental” (a word regularly used in 1951, the year of the film’s release) to withstand the shrill bludgeon of leftist criticism. But Renoir’s humanitarianism is not entirely anti-intellectual, nor does Renoir mean to mask economic realities that only petulant critics would dare to raise. Renoir’s own production notes, included in Criterion’s booklet, reveal that we are supposed to view the colonial protagonists critically and question their pettiness, self-absorption, and not-so-grand illusions:

The destructive power contained in Indian thought comes from the revelation to millions of Westerners that action is futile. To the people of my generation, action was god. The most popular form of action was work. Modern society is based on work. We must move, buy, sell, produce. The characters of The River believe in work [and] the success of Victorian virtues… The spectators of The River may guess that the fisherman in their boats on the river, the coolies bustling in the factories, the throngs in the bazaars, and those belonging to all classes who slumber on the steps of the temples are unconsciously at the origin of the crumbling of the Western technological world. They will not rebel, they will not use weapons, they will accept everything. Quietly, without their knowing, the conviction of the futility of action is taking over the world.

Renoir’s words are pensive, slightly cryptic, and more revolutionary than we might expect from an old-world humanist. There is nothing in his (largely anecdotal) autobiography My Life and My Films that approaches this level of ecumenical critique. The Bengali laborers and subalterns needn’t openly rebel, just as the film needn’t push to its surface the unavoidable fact that the protagonists’ preciousness is fleeting and their Victorian virtues moribund. The “destructive power” that lies dormant is the flowing water of time, which will outlast every colonialism and render moot every bit of useless toil.

The toil that cannot bide the passage of time endures — more intensely than ever — as our overriding reason for existence. Our work, without which we would starve, intermediates every other aspect of our lives; human relationships become subordinated to labor insofar as labor provides our primary opportunities to have relationships. When everything is reduced to work, there is no time to pursue or even define freedom: the work of capitalism is perversely supposed to be the freedom, as if the means and ends were indivisible (the stray luxury of “leisure time” only rationalizes the indivisibility).

It’s no surprise that many academic theorists and cultural critics have increasingly championed passivity, quietude, failure, sloth, and apathy as ready forms of revolt against capitalistic hurry and imperialist heedlessness. For Westerners resisting their life spans’ compulsory, unmeditative march of forced education, obligatory labor, and fearful death, the doubting negative capability identified by John Keats becomes a natural yet underutilized tool of revolution. Presuming reincarnation and recrudescence, the river bears no witness to negativism; for it, what Keats defined as unstably “negative” is simply neutral, a blithe indifference to classes and categories that is at once subhuman and superhuman. In meditating on this neutrality, in seeing the knowledge of futility as a truth inaccessible to the film’s Victorians, Renoir transcends his own attractive colors, stumbling into a “realistic” philosophy of nature that the portraiture of color so often forbids.