When I first saw Jean Renoir’s 1951 film 15 years ago, at a retrospective for the director, I found it opaque and elusive, and some of the line readings – from both the children and some of the older cast – seemed self-conscious. It is based on a novel by Rumer Godden, the author collaborating with Renoir on the screenplay, so I found myself comparing it unfavourably with the Powell/Pressburger classic Black Narcissus – another Godden adaptation. But with this new re-release, I see I should have been comparing it with The Tales of Hoffman. There is the same sprightliness and waywardness, the same dreamlike ascent away from conventional storytelling.
The scene is an expatriate white-English household near the Ganges in pre-independence India. Harriet (Patricia Walters) is a gawky, awkward, quietly passionate teenage girl with aspirations to writing – transparently an expression of Godden herself. Her flightier, prettier best friend is Valerie, played by Adrienne Corri (who 20 years later found a gruesome kind of fame as the droogs’ victim in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange), and the neighbouring girl is Melanie (Radha Burnier), half Indian daughter of a kindly widower, Mr John (Arthur Shields).
The three girls’ emotions are thrown into turmoil by the arrival of a much older handsome American, Captain John (Thomas E Breen), whose war injury only makes him more romantic. So this is a coming-of-age adolescent crisis. Before Captain John’s arrival, Harriet and her siblings and friends existed in a garden of innocence; now there is a cobra in the garden, leading to a tragedy. And so Christian symbolism sits alongside the Hindu mythology and, perhaps, the Freudian undertones – “I hate bodies!” snaps Harriet to her seraphically understanding and eternally pregnant mother at one stage.
The river itself, the Ganges, is the spiritual solvent for all the crises and troubles which, like another famous river, just keeps rolling along, like the restorative circular flow of time. The film has a unique delicacy and charm.