Director: Jean Renoir
Screenplay: Jean Renoir (based on material compiled by Jacques Levert)
Stars: Charles Blavette (Antonio Canova / Toni), Celia Montalván (Josefa), Édouard Delmont (Fernand), Max Dalban (Albert), Jenny Hélia (Marie), Michel Kovachevitch (Sebastian), Andrex (Gabi)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1935
Country: U.S.
Toni Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Toni 1

Jean Renoir’s Toni is set within an immigrant community in the south of France, a setting that virtually demands the very naturalistic approach that Renoir took. Leaving behind the studio-bound aesthetic that had largely defined his films up until that point, Renoir dove deep into a grand “experiment,” shooting the film on location with a cast composed almost entirely of nonprofessional actors. Renoir sought a kind of realism of location and character that had rarely been attempted at the time, and the film is not surprisingly often viewed as a crucial forerunner of Italian neorealism, the epitome of the post-World War II turn toward a cinema that more accurately (both aesthetically and politically) reflected the lived experiences of ordinary people.

All of the action in the film transpires in and around Martigues, Bouches-du-Rhône, a port city between the Mediterranean Sea and the Sea of Martigues. Renoir opens and closes the film with the arrival of a train full of recent immigrants—primarily Italians and Spaniards—who are looking for work in the area’s quarries and vineyards. One of those people in the film’s opening scene is Antonio “Toni” Canova (Charles Blavette), a young Italian immigrant who finds work in the nearby quarry and takes up residence in a boarding house run by Marie (Jenny Hélia), with whom he subsequently becomes romantically involved. Toni, however, is a restless soul, and soon his attention is drawn to Josefa (Celia Montalván), a Spanish immigrant who has also attracted the attention of Albert (Max Dalban), the boorish foreman at the quarry. Toni has a friend in Fernard (Édouard Delmont), an older man who recognizes Toni’s personal shortcomings and follies, but supports him nonetheless because he is a decent and forgiving soul. Despite being married to Marie, Toni still longs for Josefa, who finds herself trapped in an abusive marriage to Albert and then engaging in an affair with Gabi (Andrez), her young and self-centered cousin. The film veers into Hitchcockian thriller territory in its third act with a murder, a cover-up, and a character attempting to take the blame to protect another. And did I mention there is also an attempted suicide?

Despite its brief running time, Toni packs a lot of melodrama, and at times it feels decidedly overcooked. Renoir wrote the script based on a true-crime case compiled by Jacques Levert, a pseudonym for Jacques Mortier, a friend of his who worked as a police commissioner and originally intended to use the material for a novel. Toni has a number of Renoir’s distinct touches, notably some beautifully sustained tracking shots and a balance of emotional intimacy and humor. The cast of nonprofessional actors gives good, natural performances that blend seamlessly with the unadorned locations. There are a few moments of graceful artistry that break from the general air of bare realism, notably a scene where a character takes a boat out onto a lake, and as she moves along the edge of the lake blends in with the sky, giving her the appearance of floating in a void.

Despite the film’s aesthetic accomplishments, though, it is difficult to become too deeply involved in the story simply because none of the characters are terribly appealing and they tend to bring out the worst in each other—Toni’s narcissism accentuates Marie’s victimhood, while Albert’s sadism turns Josefa’s flirtatious liveliness into sour desperation. As always, Renoir gives the film an indelible sense of humanity, but its story is simply too slight to make the film much more than a curious forerunner to the masterpieces that Renoir would make—Grand Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939)—just a few short years later.

Toni Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.37:1
  • French Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentary by critics Kent Jones and Phillip Lopate
  • Introduction by director Jean Renoir from 1961
  • Episode of Cinéastes de notre temps from 1967 on Renoir
  • Video essay about the making of Toni by film scholar Christopher Faulkner
  • Insert with essay by Jean Renoir and an essay by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateAugust 25, 2020

    The transfer on Criterion’s Blu-ray comes from a new 4K restoration undertaken by Gaumont with the support of the CNC and L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, Italy. The restoration was made from the original 35mm camera negative and a 35mm fine-grain positive from the Cinémathèque française. The image looks incredibly good for the film’s age, with strong detail and clarity and a rich presence of grain that looks excellent in-motion. There are few if any signs of age and wear. The original monaural soundtrack was remastered and restored from a 35mm optical soundtrack positive. It has the expected sonic limitations of a film of this vintage, but it is clean and clear. In terms of supplements, we get the same excellent, informative commentary that was recorded with critics Kent Jones and Phillip Lopate for the 2006 Masters of Cinema DVD release. Criterion has also added a great 25-minute video essay about the film’s production by film scholar Christopher Faulkner. The rest of the supplements have been drawn from the archives: a short introduction to the film by Renoir that was recorded for French television in 1961 and a 90-minute episode of Cinéastes de notre temps from 1967 dedicated to Renoir’s career. The episode was directed by French New Wave auteur Jacques Rivette and includes a conversation with actor Charles Blavette about Toni. The insert includes a reprint of Jean Renoir’s essay “Toni and Classicism,” which was originally published in the June 1956 issue of Cahiers du cinéma, and a new essay by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau.

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    Overall Rating: (3)

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