France | 82 min.
black & white
Jean Renoir, 1934
THIS TITLE IS NO LONGER AVAILABLE TO PURCHASE
Financed by Marcel Pagnol’s production company, Jean Renoir’s Toni is a landmark in French filmmaking. Based on a police dossier concerning a provincial crime of passion, it was lensed by Claude Renoir on location (unusually for the time) in the small town of Les Martigues where the actual events occurred. The use of directly-recorded sound, authentic patois, lack of make-up, a large ensemble cast of local citizens in supporting roles, and Renoir’s steadfast desire to avoid melodrama lead to Toni often being labeled “the first ‘neorealist’ film”. Renoir himself disagreed. Although Toni is acknowledged as a masterly forerunner of neo-realist preoccupations and techniques he wrote: “I do not think that is quite correct. The Italian films are magnificent dramatic productions, whereas in Toni I was at pains to avoid the dramatic.”
Toni’s story centres on an Italian immigrant, Antonio Canova (Charles Blavette), a labourer at a local quarry who has become entangled in relationships with his landlady (Jenny Helia) and with the young, hot-blooded Spaniard, Josefa (Celia Montalvan). As Josefa’s life disintegrates through rape and a necessitous marriage to the brutish foreman Albert (Max Dalban), Toni is caught up in a series of marriages gone sour and the psychological fragility of those he cares for.
Despite the exquisite location backgrounds — the vineyards, rocky hilltops and verdant pathways surrounding the little village — Renoir makes no attempt to impose, through picturesqueness, the placid power of this Provencal backwater. Toni’s direct style and theme (Luchino Visconti was assistant director) attained classic status with the critics and directors of the French New Wave. Renoir’s vision of realism approaches a purity sometimes found in documentary, whilst retaining the literary power and emotion of Balzac, Flaubert and Zola. The Masters of Cinema Series is proud to present Toni for the first time on DVD in the West.
by Tom Milne, 1980
The following text was originally published in The Movie_ (#7), [Orbis 1980]
Long thought to be a puzzling imperfectionist who made tantalisingly flawed films, Renoir had to await full recognition of his genius until the late Forties – after the Italian neorealists had demonstrated that people and passion could be more important than technical perfection and stylistic consistency. Toni was an exception even among Renoir’s early sound films, which persistently broke the prevailing rule of studio settings and carefully contrived soundtracks. Much of it was shot on location, without makeup and using directly recorded natural sounds.
Yet although the film came to be acknowledged as a masterly forerunner of neorealist preoccupations and techniques, Renoir himself disagreed. ‘I do not think that is quite correct,’ he wrote in My Life and My Films. ‘The Italian films are magnificent dramatic productions. whereas in Toni I was at pains to avoid the dramatic.’
Renoir was too modest to make the point that the fatal flaw in such key neorealist films as Bicycle Thieves (1948) was that, in their determination to be dramatic; to extract sympathy on behalf of the sufferings of ordinary people, they fell headlong into the trap of sentimentality. Toni, on the other hand, is not concerned with wringing hearts over the tragedy it presents; it is content merely to observe.
Based on a police dossier concerning a crime of passion that had taken place in Les Martigues some ten years previously, Toni allows no special pleading for its characters. Josefa is not the dewy-eyed innocent imagined by Toni, a romantic constantly disappointed by the way life fails to match up to his dreams. She is a full-blooded young woman, not averse to provoking male instincts by wearing nothing under her dress or to teasing Toni with an erotic invitation to suck the poison from a bee-sting in her neck. She willingly succumbs to Albert. Toni, increasingly obsessed by the now unattainable Josefa, treats Marie unfeelingly – not through malice, but simply because she is approaching middle-age and unendowed with a farm. Even the brutish, mean Albert is not wholly vicious (and certainly less despicable than Gabi who leaves Josefa in the lurch after persuading her to do his dirty work): forced to marry Josefa, inescapably aware of her preference for Toni, Albert has never been allowed to forget that, as a Belgian among meridionals, he is an interloper.
Renoir is constantly concerned to defuse the melodrama inherent in the situations, often with an unexpected touch of humour. He rarely focuses on dramatic climaxes in an attempt to milk their effect. Marie for instance, suggests to Toni that a double wedding might be a thrifty notion. Renoir cuts on Toni’s silence to the dreary wedding of Albert and Josefa, Toni and Marie. A fade-out then draws a veil over their impending misery, which literally explodes in the following scene. While setting a dynamite charge at the quarry, Toni is told by a friend about Albert’s infidelities. As they sit waiting on a hilltop for the explosion, with Toni worrying as to what the future holds, the entire rock face slowly crumbles and falls.
The extremes to which the characters are subsequently driven (having been symbolically intimated) may now be staged without the need to explore psychological motivations or resort to undue dramatic techniques. Marie is provoked into attempting suicide by a pointless yet crucial quarrel (Toni wants to attend the funeral of Josefa’s uncle – Marie sees this as an indication of his continuing involvement with Josefa). She rows a boat out to the middle of a lake, stops, and slowly stands up. At this point Renoir cuts away to Toni hunting for her with increasing concern: the important thing is not whether her suicide succeeds (she almost certainly intends it to fail), but whether Toni will shoulder the guilt she is trying to force on him. Similarly just prior to the murder, as Albert lashes Josefa with his belt, the agitated tracking shots alternating with close-ups are designed less to dramatise the scene than to illustrate the unreasoning panic that leads to murder.
However Toni is not a shapeless mass of observed reality – in fact it is as strictly formalised as any Renoir film. It has a circular construction – the arrival of a batch of immigrants is repeated at the end. This suggests that the events we have just witnessed, though shattering to the lives immediately touched by them, have left no lasting mark on the social milieu. Despite the exquisite location backgrounds – the vineyards, rocky hilltops and verdant pathways surrounding the little village – Renoir makes no attempt to impose, through visual picturesqueness, the placid power of this Provençal backwater. Nonetheless the fundamental structuring element is the way Renoir contrives to impose the slow serene rhythm of Provence on each scene, so that the urgency of passion or despair – Josefa and Toni laboriously pushing a handcart down a leafy lane while, she tries to make him act upon his love for her, Marie drifting across the lake to stage her suicide – is absorbed by the tranquil, passive landscape.
Tom Milne was helping with the production of this DVD when he passed away. A webpage of tributes can be found here.