"A story based on the immemorial themes of childhood, love and death," is how the French director Jean Renoir described the Bengal-set The River, his lyrical account of a British teenage girl's romantic awakening during the last years of the Raj. Shot in exquisite Technicolour on the banks of the Ganges, it's a wonderfully serene film which is filled with vivid images of nature and which displays a warm curiosity towards Hindu customs.
Like Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus, The River was based on a novel by Rumer Godden, although Renoir choose not to recreate India in a studio but to film on location in India itself. The semi-autobiographical story centres on the adolescent Harriet (Patricia Walters), whose idyllic existence with her parents and siblings is interrupted by the arrival at her neighbours of an American pilot (Thomas E Breen), who lost his leg during World War Two. Harriet develops a crush on this crippled veteran, yet the newcomer also stirs the feelings of her friends, Valerie (Adrienne Corri) and the mixed-race Melanie (Radha).
Narrated by the adult Harriet, The River is blessed with a captivating lyricism, not least the sublime moment where the garden tree bursts into blossom. The repeated shots of the Ganges, both during the bustling day and the peaceful night, establish the river as a metaphor for the ebb and flow of our existences. And most poignantly, there's the stoic acceptance by the Westerners that the tragic death of a young child is part of life's eternal cycles of loss and rebirth. As the voice-over calmly concludes, "The river runs, the world spins ...the day ends, the end begins."