Scorsese Screens - November 2022
This month TCM is showing Jean Renoir’s La Bête humaine and The River. Both are based on novels, by Emile Zola and Rumer Godden respectively, and in both cases Renoir significantly transformed the source material. Marc Allégret was the first director to express interest in adapting Zola’s melodramatic story of an engine driver prone to fits of homicidal madness and his involvement with a married woman compromised into committing murder. The project was offered to Marcel Carné and then wound up with Renoir, who had just worked with the star, Jean Gabin, on The Lower Depths and Grand Illusion (Gabin was apparently eager to make a film in which he drove a locomotive). Renoir stripped away and simplified multiple elements of the plot, and he grounded the action in the behaviors and friendships and jobs of his characters, the rhythms and textures of their lives, their sad humanity—there’s no other film quite like it, by Renoir or anyone else (it’s interesting to watch it side by side with Fritz Lang’s 50s adaptation, Human Desire).
Two years later, after Renoir made Rules of the Game—a disaster on first release, and very far ahead of its time—he left the country, first for Italy and then for California. After his troubled and fascinating wartime period in Hollywood, Renoir pursued many different projects (the most intriguing of which was a modern day version of the life of Jesus). He settled on an adaptation of Godden’s autobiographical novel, which would be the first Technicolor film shot in India. Renoir tried to set up the project with David Loew (who produced his greatest American picture, The Southerner), but he eventually made it with a Beverly Hills florist named Kenneth McEldowney. Renoir worked with Godden herself on the script (she loved The River as much as she hated Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus), and although they altered the novel and created a new half Indian/half American character named Melanie, the real transformation happened in the cutting room.
When Renoir gave a talk at the Calcutta Film Society before shooting, he advised the aspiring filmmakers present, one of whom was an advertising designer named Satyajit Ray (who had met Renoir previously and given him a copy of his outline for Pather Panchali), to reject the Hollywood style of production and find their own proper approach. As Renoir himself did, when he lost many of the purely plot-related elements and restructured the film in such a way that it really had no central character. You could say that the “protagonist” of The River became the flow of life itself. He took the time to allow the film to find its own proper form, and in the process created one of the greatest ever made. The vibrant color, the unusual structure, the use of Indian music that Renoir himself recorded for the soundtrack, the presence of the narrator, the philosophy, if one could put it that way, and so many other intangible elements have all had a profound and lasting effect on me and on my films. I’m not alone.