In somewhat of a surprise (at least to me) Criterion upgrades their DVD edition of Jean Renoirís The River, presenting the film in its original aspect ratio of around 1.37:1 on a dual-layer disc. The high-definition 1080p/24hz transfer comes from a 35mm interpositive created from the 2004 restoration, which was created from original three-strip Technicolor negatives.
According to the notes the same high-definition transfer created from the 2004 restoration and used for Criterionís original DVD has also been used here. That DVD looked pretty damn good, especially for a standard definition presentation of a Technicolor film, and revisiting it again it still looks really good, even when upscaled. The Blu-ray now delivers the full high-definition master and at a glance it doesnít look too different from the DVD, but it still delivers the improvements I would expect from the format.
We ultimately still get more detail in this presentation, along with better depth and colour. As happy as I am with the DVDís presentation it still features the usual problems of the format: some noticeable compression, lack of depth, issues rendering reds, so on and so forth. The Blu-ray delivers a much cleaner, more filmic look, managing grain a little better and lacks any compression noise. Edges are clean and well defined, and textures look more natural. Some long shots can be a bit on the soft side, but this doesnít look to be an issue with the transfer and is simply related to the elements.
Colours also do look much better. In comparison the tones and hues of the colours are pretty much the same in comparison to the DVD, but saturation does look so much better here, with blues and reds looking purer and cleaner (reds are especially striking). Blacks are also strong. I didnít note any damage and the print is very clean, though this isnít too surprising since the DVD also looked spectacularly clean. The only real improvement I noticed in this area was that some pulsating visible in the DVD appears to be gone now.
In the end the Blu-ray does offer a noticeably better image in that the digital presentation is just far more natural looking with better colour and detail rendering. Itís very clean and very natural looking. I was happy with the DVD but the Blu-ray does look rather spectacular. 9/10
All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.
I would have expected this to be a straight port of the DVD, but unfortunately thatís not the case: this edition actually drops a few items that were found on that original DVD edition, but at the same time it also adds a couple of other features. Like most of Criterionís Renoir releases this disc opens with an introduction by Jean Renoir, recorded for television in the 60ís. Renoir gives a brief history of the production, starting with how he came by the novel (he just happened upon a review of it) and then talks about the wonderful experience he had India, from scouting locations (he needed to make sure he could film there) to actual filming. He has a clear affection for the film, even calling it his favourite. The intro runs about 8-minutes.
Martin Scorsese next provides a 13-minute interview recorded in 2004 about this film, which he calls one of his favourites. He recalls the experience of seeing it with his father at a young age and the huge impact it had on him, mainly in showing him a culture he was completely unaware of. The film is one of the ones that influenced him into making films, and he talks about the framings and the use of colour. Itís also the film that eventually led him to discover some of Renoirís other films, particularly Grand Illusion (he also admits he never could relate to Rules of the Game). Scorsese is always energetic when he talks about film, particularly his favourites, and this one is just as engrossing and entertaining as his others. Unfortunately he doesnít talk about the restoration, which he was the primary backer of, and was hoping to hear more about that (this release surprisingly features next to nothing on that subject) but it is otherwise a good interview.
New to this edition is a 60-minute making-of from 2008 called Around the River, featuring interviews with Radha Burnier, Alain Renoir, James Ivory, Satyajit Ray, and others. It starts off covering Renoirís move from France to America (unsuccessfully) and then how he came to begin making The River, which was a long, tenuous task itself and he wasnít able to do it until florist Kenneth McEldowney expressed interest in adapting the novel and financing it himself. From here the documentary goes through the surprisingly rough production using said interviews and location shooting. Itís really an unorthodox story itself and this documentary provides a fairly fascinating retelling of it.
Criterion then ports over their audio interview with producer/florist Kenneth McEldowney, and recorded by Criterion in 2000. I suspect the 47-minute recording was meant to be edited into a possible audio commentary with other participants, as it plays like one at times. At any rate, McEldowney, who can be a bit hard to understand at times, talks about the production, going over some of the difficulties that arose while working on the film, and talks about Renoir and the experience working with him. Thereís a few interesting stories, particularly about casting, making for a rather entertaining track. Iím glad it made it over. Unfortunately Criterion chose not to port over the text notes that accompanied the interview on the DVD.
Also new to this edition is a video essay by writer Paul Ryan called Jean Renoir: A Passage Through India. Itís a bit of a disappointing feature unfortunately, though not without its value. It promises to look at Renoirís approach to filming Goddenís novel but ends up feeling like more of a ďmaking-ofĒ, which has actually been covered thoroughly in the other features on this disc. He does talk a bit more about Satyajit Rayís participation with the film (and talks about how important an influence Renoir was on him) and also talks a bit more about Renoirís concern for colour and how he was able to convince Godden to let him film it since she hated the other film adaptations of her work (Enchantment and Black Narcissus). Itís not without some merit but itís a disappointingly slim feature. It runs about 15-minutes.
The disc then closes with a theatrical trailer. Unfortunately as mentioned before everything has not been ported over from the DVD. The aforementioned text notes didnít make it but a photo gallery is also missing in action; however a lot of the photos from it made their way into Ryanís visual essay. The biggest surprise absence is the 60-minute BBC documentary Rumer Godden: An Indian Affair, which was a rather valuable inclusion on the previous DVD. Since nothing here really replaces it (thereís very little about the author specifically on here) I can only assume Criterion was unable to renew the rights. The included insert (replacing the DVDís booklet) featureís Ian Christieís excellent essay on the film along with a brief note on the film, its characters, the setting and its people, written by Renoir, but is missing Alexander Sesonskeís article on the making of the film, though the disc features now feature more about this subject (the previous DVD had very little).
Iím bummed at the lack of the Godden documentary (so that means Iíll be holding on to the old DVD) but the new making-of documentary is a nice addition. Overall a decent set of material. 7/10