Human yearning, the cycle of life and death, and the ability to consent to it all are themes running throughout Jean Renoir’s The River. The characters living along the river’s banks are in need of some type of resolution, or at least conclusion, towards these themes to make it all understandable. Unfortunately for them, they are in a Renoir film, where conclusions are a tricky thing to sort out; the best they can hope for is an evolution toward understanding themselves. For both Renoir and his narrator Harriet, the search for clarity comes through art, and no scene better encapsulates this search than the eight minute standalone set piece that is her tale of Krishna and Radha, a story showcasing the function of storytelling as art that both character and filmmaker use to bring clarity and acceptance into a world that often seems confusing and destructive.

The scene itself takes place in the middle of the film and shows Harriet’s attempt to distract the flirtations between her best friend [and now rival] Valerie, and her crush, Captain John. The story she tells to interrupt their romance is about the birth of a baby girl in a small village in India who grows up and catches sight of a beautiful man she believes to be an incarnation of Lord Krishna, whom she falls in love with. Unfortunately, the girl’s father arranges a marriage for her. On her wedding day, however, the groom is revealed to be none other than the beautiful man. 

The girl is so joyful that she performs a dance for him in order to communicate her love, and the two temporarily transform into Krishna and Radha, manifestations of the masculine and feminine aspects of God. The girl goes to the river, praying to be blessed with a child, and the story ends as it began. Valerie notes that Harriet’s story is not truly about Krishna, but about “any little girl,” as Harriet asks John how to spell “conclusion.” John suggests she just say “the end,” but Valerie explains that this would be incorrect because the story is “endless.” Upon my first viewing, the scene itself seemed to be an anomaly in the film: it is the only time a character’s tale is visualized for the audience, and it does not advance the actual plot of the film in any way.  

The River itself also seemed an anomaly to me upon first viewing; Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game are two incredible films about human nature, but I just couldn’t wrap my head around The River. A coming-of-age story set in India and focused on a group of upper-crust Europeans? What’s the deal? The acting seemed wooden, the story seemed trite, and the documentary-style footage seemed...well, like it was from the 1950s. Not understanding Renoir’s purpose, I chalked it up to a case of a great director’s talent subsiding with age and didn’t appreciate my first viewing.  

But during Harriet’s story, I started paying attention to the filmmaking more and recognized the power of Renoir’s trademark storytelling device: association. Renoir was always a master in cross-fading between images and using montage to associate different ideas for the audience, a subtle psychological trick designed to make his audience compare seemingly dissimilar concepts. During Harriet’s story, Renoir cuts between Harriet’s storytelling and her story itself, and the effect is fantastic: with Harriet, we get to see the story’s purpose in her experience, and in the visual of the story she’s telling, we get to see an illustration of the film’s themes of yearning, consent, and change all at once.

Harriet’s use of the story to distract is not her only purpose; she is also seeking an answer to questions surrounding yearning and love, and the story she tells is a way to create an ideal resolution to her conflicts. The story of a man and woman becoming gods through love offers clarity and resolution unlike the confusing love triangle and emotional chaos she finds herself in. Valerie sees the story as being about any little girl and laughs it off, but her comment about it being endless is important; Renoir is telling us that the cycle of life continues regardless of human interests. Even Captain John applies the story to his own life in a subtle attempt to seek understanding: when he recognizes that the girl in Harriet’s story is a stand-in for Melanie [his crush], and the man of Radha’s affections is a stand-in for Melanie’s own love match, John seems dejected.  

Storytelling then is a way toward clarity for both Harriet and Renoir. The audience associates Harriet as the author of the entire movie, like Renoir; the power both storytellers have lies in their art. It is no coincidence that the story is both Harriet’s tool to undermine Valerie as well as her way of grappling with understanding. For Renoir too, art is the key to both understanding and transformation. Radha’s dance is her key towards transformation, as Harriet’s story is a key towards understanding. In a film about the problems humans face when confronted with creation and destruction, art is the ultimate transcendence; it is the only way to create ideal unity in a world marked by chaos and conflict. It wasn’t until the film’s conclusion that I understood again the humanism at work in Renoir’s art. The river flows on endlessly, and only the stories occurring on its banks and in its waters mark the cycles of its human dramas.

Watch Harriet's Story here.