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Film / The River (1951)

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The River is a 1951 film directed by Jean Renoir.

It is set in India, sometime during The Raj. The protagonist is a tween girl named Harriet, whose father manages a jute mill. Their large family includes four younger sisters for Harriet and a little brother affectionately called "Bogey". They live in a mansion on the Ganges River, hence the title. Harriet is best friends with an older girl, Valerie, whose father owns the jute mill. Harriet and her family are neighbors with one Mr. John, a white man who had a now-deceased Indian wife. Mr. John has a daughter, Melanie, who is about Valerie's age.

Into this mix comes Mr. John's cousin, Captain John, an American who lost his leg in "the war". Harriet develops an immediate and intense crush on the handsome captain. Capt. John pays little attention to the affections of a girl of about 12, but is much more receptive to the older Valerie—but he pays the most attention to Melanie.

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Jean Renoir's first film in color. Shot entirely on location in India; it was the first Technicolor film made there. Satyajit Ray got a job as an assistant in the production.


Tropes:

  • Age Cut: In the story that Harriet tells to Valerie and Capt. John, the little Indian girl starts dancing. As she dances, two age cuts age her up into a young woman of marriageable age (played by the same young woman who plays Melanie).
  • Ambiguous Time Period: There is almost nothing in the film to pin down exactly when it's supposed to be taking place. There are no references to current events or pop culture, and there is no technology like motor vehicles. Capt. John lost a leg in "the war", but we never find out which war. This is likely deliberate to reinforce the theme of the timelessness of the river and how the circle of life goes on and on while the river flows. (The novel the film was based on was set in the 1920s.)
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  • Birth/Death Juxtaposition: Bogey's death is soon followed by Harriet's mother giving birth to another girl.
  • Coming-of-Age Story: The protagonist is a young girl who has her first adolescent crush, then goes on to learn some hard lessons.
  • Death of a Child: Bogey is killed by a snakebite. Harriet feels responsible, as she saw the cobra in the garden but didn't tell her father as she was preoccupied with thoughts of Capt. John.
  • Does Not Like Men: Valerie pretends this, saying "Usually I hate men." But she's clearly besotted with Capt. John.
  • Foreshadowing: Poor little Bogey's fascination with snakes and snake-charming foreshadows his death by cobra bite.
  • Kissing Cousins: While Capt. John kisses Valerie, he's more attracted to his cousin's daughter, Melanie.
  • Narrator: The narrator is an older Harriet, who introduces all the characters in the beginning and comments on the action throughout. (The fact that Narrator Harriet sounds significantly older than onscreen Harriet is the only clue we have in the movie that the setting is well before 1951.)
  • Medium Awareness: Harriet's opening narration says "We welcome you to this picture."
  • No Name Given: Harriet's parents are credited as "The Mother" and "The Father".
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: We eventually find out that the reason Capt. John is in India is that he feels alienated and unable to fit in with anyone after losing his leg in war.
  • Smoking Is Cool: Valerie puffs on a cigarette in an obvious attempt to impress Capt. John with her worldliness. Subverted when she starts coughing.
  • Snake Charmer: There's one in the bazaar. Bogey is fascinated, with tragic consequences.
  • Swing Low, Sweet Harriet: One scene has Valerie and Harriet swinging on a swing together as they talk about Capt. John.
  • The Talk: A censor-friendly 1950s version of this as Harriet's mother tells her that her body is changing and she'll soon have babies.
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