|Charles Blavette as Toni|
(click on any image for a slide show of screen shots)
When I was growing up a thousand years ago it was not uncommon for musicologists to discuss late Classical and Romantic era composers and their work in terms of "periods". While there was some merit in this approach the danger is to overlook the organic nature of an artist's career, unless of course there are radical or clearly distinctive changes in direction. Beethoven always fits the mould and it never really hindered appreciation because his work despite the deafness of his old age, was obviously a personal progression stylistically and formally within the same musical forms and genres.
In the movies the same temptation can arise through various critical schools and positions. The danger in applying it here to directors is to fragment their personalities in the process, assuming of course you buy auteurism generally. One director who, I believe can be fruitfully viewed in this approach is Renoir, with the geographical changes that mark what we can simply call his three periods. His first "period", from the late silent era films to 1939, the War and French Occupation; his few years in the USA from 1940 to 46 where he directed four unusually distinctive movies in both studio and independent regimes; the remarkable break after the war and the astonishing standalone masterpiece from his Indian sojourn, The River from Rumer Godden's novel. Finally, there was the third period after he returned to France until his death (in Hollywood) in 1979.
His thirties oeuvre is surely one of the greatest bodies of work in cinema, from his first talkie, a stage adaptation of the farce On Purge Bébé in 1931 to the 1939 closure on the dawn of War, La Règle du Jeu. The problem for us has always been continuing availability of these movies and even now, more than a couple are almost impossible to see, notable La Nuit du Carrefour and Le Tournoi, the latter of which exists only as a fragment. There have been other Renoirs meanwhile that have made a debut on home video or re-release but short of the monumentally complete Renoir retrospectives which were staged by MoMA and BFI in the late 70s and early 80s, the reputation of only a few well known titles holds the fort.
Among those "missing" in action was Toni, made on location in 1934 in Provence and in the studios run by Marcel Pagnol and his company, taken from a police record of a crime passionelle involving a ménage à trois and a tragic outcome. The movie resurfaced back in the 70s in our neck of the woods as I recall presumably from a French Embassy 16mm print, and made waves for the few of us who ever saw it. The estimable Masters of Cinema label licensed it from a then new Gaumont print in the late 90s and that DVD edition sold out. Since then it's been waiting in the twilight for a rescue. That finally happened through the graces of Pathé/Gaumont and the Bologna Cineteca’s L’Immagine Ritrovata which completed a superb restoration with funding from CNC in 2019. This 4K restoration debuted at the Ritrovato Festival the same year.
Criterion have finally released this from Gaumont's 4K master to Blu-ray last month and I can only say it was worth the wait.
In complete stark opposition to the claims made for it as a seminal work of so-called "neo realism" the movie in fact presents Renoir shooting in plein air not for the first time (he does so extensively in Boudu three years earlier), and contrary to the claims of non-professionals taking parts, the four leads are indeed professional actors, not least Jenny Hélia as Marie and Charles Blavette in the lead. The latter reads his lines in a profoundly thick Southern Provençal accent which seems to have confounded the neo-realist apologists who may have thought he was faking an Italian accent (the character is a "guest worker" from Italy.) Renoir's driving force in this is the melodrama of the wrong people falling in love with the wrong people. The undertext to this is at the heart of Toni's own malcontent. He is that a victim of the 20th century’s heinous cruelty, he’s in effect a Refugee, without a home, and his malaise informs every twist and turn of the narrative and relationships. His "sacrifice" at the end which is effectively a suicide by default is taken out with his slow death in the arms of Fernand played by Edouard Delmont, his only friend and the only person who loves him. It's one of the most moving scenes in all of Renoir.
The movie ends with another shot of the great suspension bridge that signals the march of industrialization over the region as another group of Spanish and Italian "guest workers" arrive on yet another train which has just crossed the same bridge, in symmetry to the opening of the movie and the arrival of Toni at the film's beginning. Most if not quite all of Renoir's thirties films include a killing. And much of the movie's tone is involved in explaining or regarding the death, in a profoundly socially interdependent milieu.
In his next film, Le Crime de M. Lange with a Prevert screenplay he celebrates the communard and the hoped for liberation by the Front Popularie, which leads Lange to kill Batala, a murder which he seems to have made on behalf of the entire movement, represented by the the workers of the printing house.
Renoir's absolute and profound understanding of character takes us to places very few directors have gone. One of the very few is Leo McCarey whom Renoir himself noted as the American director who most understood character.
One of the greatest joys of this movie is Claude Renoir's sublime photography which is shown off to such clarity. Claude was Renoir's nephew and this was his first film fully credited as DP. The image quality is to die for. Claude uses extremely short lenses for the wide shots in depth so that only one focal point of the composition is "sharp" at any given time This serves to move and highlight groups or backgrounds with a kind of visual kineticism, and ethereality. The movie often looks like it was shot on orthochromatic stock, such is the degree of silver halide tinges of light. Renoir's own battery of technique runs from long take group shots, with characters in foreground of the quarry, to sharp Soviet style frontal montage for reactions and frozen action, including the killing of Albert.
There's no doubt in my mind Toni is one of the eight or nine masterpieces from Renoir's 30s period. The new disc is an essential purchase.