Although made by Marcel Pagnol’s film company back in the 1930s, Renoir’s depiction of life among the working classes in the south of France is initially closer to the modernity of Robert Guédiguian (Marius et Jeanette) than the poetically pastoral qualities of Pagnol’s bucolic idylls (La Trilogie Marseillaise, Manon des Sources). From the opening scenes, Renoir shows the south of France as a melting pot, and a potentially explosive one, attracting labourers from Italy, Spain and further abroad, all seeking to make a home for themselves wherever they can find work.
One of these economic migrants is Toni (Charles Blavette), an Italian crossing the border for work, he soon makes himself at home, sharing the bed of his landlady Marie (Jenny Hélia) and employed in a quarry. His relationship with Marie however is a tempestuous one and Toni has higher ambitions. Falling for the seductive charms of a Spanish washerwoman, Josefa (Celia Montalvan), Toni hopes to leave Marie and marry into the vineyard run by Josefa’s uncle – but he has competition for Josefa affections from the brutish charm of Albert (Max Dalban), the foreman at the quarry.
The description of Toni might sound like the typical Pagnol Provençal drama of romantic entanglements and family struggles over land and inheritance, but Renoir’s approach is much starker in its realism, basing the story on a real-life incident taken from a news story, and using the real location of Martigues and even the real-life, non-actor people of the region. For all their character flaws, it is clear that Toni and Josefa were meant to be together, and it is only their dissatisfaction with the relationships they have mistakenly and foolishly entered into that leads them to tragedy. It’s a situation that is potentially as explosive and passionate as Bizet’s Carmen. Any potential melodrama in this storyline however is downplayed in Renoir’s naturalistic filming technique, without lessening in any way the impact of the desires that have been stirred and the tragedy that will doubtless ensue. It’s an approach that, a decade ahead of its time, would prove tremendously influential on Italian neo-realism, on films like Ossessione. Luchino Visconti, indeed, was assistant director on here on Toni.
Renoir’s approach to filming this hotbed of races and passions is consequently fascinating and rather appropriate, mixing hot and cold techniques and using both actors and non-actors to temper the otherwise traditional depiction of a script that feels like a filmed melodramatic play. Thus scenes of passion are filmed from unexpected angles and in an unexpected manner, from the subtle eroticism of Toni’s removal of the Josefa’s bee sting, to the use of twisted branches and foliage to mask the Albert’s seduction of the washerwoman. Likewise key dramatic moments such as an attempted suicide and a murder are also filmed in a distant manner that is not traditional for such scenes, yet they feel authentic and no less effective. The use of musical interludes, played by a troubadour-like guitarist, also lends the film a fine sense of structure, punctuating the film at key scenes and underlining the film’s sense of being a folklore murder ballad.
The various critics on the DVD commenting on the film point out Toni’s status as the first mature Jean Renoir film, and it’s not difficult to see just how important it is, not just in Renoir’s career, but in terms of French cinema . Moving away from romanticism and filmed theatre that had been up to then traditional, and away from the stylisations of silent film, Toni strives for a documentary-like realism, using non-actors and real-life locations, and in doing so Renoir captures true human passions and conflicts in their search for betterment and for love.
Toni is released in the UK by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema catalogue. Toni is spine number #28 in the series. The DVD is in PAL format and encoded for Region 2.
The image may look heavily flawed in places, but this is actually a remarkably good transfer of a 70 year-old film. What damage remains is mainly limited to the beginning and end of reels, where there is evidence of water damage, splice marks and tramline scratches. Aside from that, and apart from the occasional stray dustspot and a missing frame or two, the damage is virtually non-existent for the main part of the film. There is a slight softness throughout and a few reels are a little too bright, but this is clearly down to the on-location conditions of the filming and the obvious age of the film itself. The actual tones are superb, showing excellent greyscale and reasonably detailed blacks. This is about as good as you could expect this film to look from these original elements. In terms of its transfer to DVD, there is little problem. One or two scenes show some backgrounds and foregrounds wavering through the compression encoding, but this is relatively rare and the image is fairly stable throughout.
Again considering the age of the material and the uncommon use of natural sound recorded directly on location, the audio track is in excellent condition. There is a faint hint of crackle in backgrounds, but it is well suppressed without affecting the tone of the film’s natural and effective use of live sound.
Optional English subtitles are provided for the film, in a clear and appropriately sized white font. Effort is even taken to move the subtitles to the top on one occasion when the composition of the frame demands clear and unhindered vision of the bottom of the screen. Unfortunately, there are no subtitles on the extra features or commentary.
Effort has clearly gone into providing appropriate commentary and criticism of the film in the form of new and archive essays, appreciations and commentaries.
Geoff Andrews on Toni (17:02) is an appreciation of the film by the director of the National Film Theatre. In a filmed interview, he mentions the real-life incident that the story is based on and talks about how the film came to be made, how it fits into Renoir’s outlook and film work, with other French films of the period and its relationship with Italian neo-realism.
Kent Jones & Philip Lopate Commentary
Inevitably, in the absence of a director, we have here another rather dry and academic commentary, typical of many found on Criterion and Eureka releases. There is no doubting the critics’ enthusiasm for the film, but this is really only of interest if you are want to hear technical descriptions of the film’s use of camera movements, “deep space”, “plasticity which comes from the properties of the image itself”, their obsession with pointing out diagonals - or maybe even to just listen to other views speculating on the characters behaviour and what is being shown on the screen. Personally, I found this to be of little interest and not particularly helpful in understanding how the film works.
Most useful of all is the excellent 28 page booklet which features a wealth of archive press, interviews and commentary on the film by Jean Renoir (interviewed among others by François Truffaut and Jacques Rivette), as well as contemporary views on the film.
The appearance of Toni in Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series is a pleasant surprise, the label continuing to expand their range beyond their initial remit of early silent film and classic Japanese horror into a much wider catalogue of classic cinema that is unlikely to be seen outside of the Criterion Collection, and often not even there. One hopes that access to Toni might see equally fine releases of other neglected classics of early French cinema (La Trilogie Marseillaise or La Femme du Boulanger possibly?). Renoir’s Toni however is a good start – a film of traditional melodrama and passion given a remarkably strong realist treatment, with striking use of location shooting and non-actors. This film gets a typically fine treatment from Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema collection, with a strong transfer and a considered selection of extra features.