Toni (1935, Jean Renoir)

A story of hot-blooded foreigners who come to France to work, getting in torrid love affairs then killing each other. Renoir beginning on a rare burst of pessimism that would lead to La Bete Humaine.

Toni (Charles Blavett of Stormy Waters and Manon of the Spring) is sleeping with his landlady Marie (Jenny Helia of La Bete Humaine), but has the hots for Josefa. She seems to like him too, but ends up sleeping with Albert, a supervisor at the quarry where Toni works.

Toni and Marie:

Toni and Josefa:

Two years later, Josefa has a kid, her husband Albert is cheating, and Toni still lives noncommittally with Marie. Josefa’s uncle Sebastian, a friend of Toni’s dies, and after Toni gets in a fight with Marie over whether he’s attending the funeral, she tries to drown herself.

Josefa can’t deal with her husband anymore, so plots to escape with her cousin Gabi (“Andrex” of Hotel du Nord), with whom she’s been cheating for years. But the escape goes wrong – Josefa kills Albert, Gabi flees on his own and Toni takes the fall, gets shot down as a train full of new immigrants arrives to take his place.

Eureka provides context:

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.”

M. Campi:

Renoir continues his investigations of depth of field and the moving camera and makes painterly use of the natural landscapes to counterpoint the drama. He delights in establishing landscapes from foreground to the distance with his characters weaving through diagonally. The organization of the movement within the frame is breathtaking but never straining for effect or obvious. Like nature itself, these elements flow effortlessly, belying the care and attention that has inspired them.

T. Milne:

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. … 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.

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