Set among immigrants and laborers in an unglamorous corner of the South of France, Toni (1935) fulfills Jean Renoir’s wish to make a film in “a style as close as possible to that of daily encounters,” as he wrote in May 1956. The title role is played by Charles Blavette, a native of the area with no formal training whose low-key performance makes Toni’s tragic plight memorable. With its use of nonprofessional actors, extensive location shooting, and direct sound recording brimming with accents (southern, Parisian, Italian, Spanish, Mexican, Corsican), Toni constitutes a benchmark in realist filmmaking.
After the credits, a title proudly heralds the film as “A True Story Told by Jean Renoir.” While not strictly speaking a political film, Toni signals a move on Renoir’s part toward a socially committed cinema and is justifiably recognized as anticipating Italian neorealism—even if the neorealists may never have seen the film (with the possible exception of Luchino Visconti, who would work with Renoir in 1936 on A Day in the Country but did not on Toni, as is sometimes claimed). Yet as steeped as it is in the social world of the midthirties, the film’s narrative, inspired by a crime-of-passion fait divers, is also highly melodramatic. Renoir recognized this contradiction in his 1974 autobiography My Life and My Films: “While I imagined I was filming a squalid episode based on real life, I was recounting, almost despite myself, a heartrending and poetic love story.”
Toni opens with the arrival by train of a group of Italian immigrants, including the title character, in Martigues, a small town northwest of Marseille, in a quickly industrializing region. Toni finds work at the local quarry and a room in a guesthouse run by Marie (Jenny Hélia). Two years after this prologue, Marie and Toni are living together, but he has tired of her because he is attracted to Josefa (Celia Montalván), a Spanish woman who lives on a farm with her uncle Sebastian (André Kovachevitch). Toni asks Sebastian for Josefa’s hand, but then she is “seduced” by Albert (Max Dalban), the foreman at the quarry. In a double ceremony, Josefa marries Albert, and Toni, heartbroken, weds Marie. Two more years on, Albert and Josefa have a daughter; Albert is abusive and unfaithful. Sebastian dies, and Josefa’s cousin Gabi (Andrex) persuades her to try to retrieve the farm’s income, which Albert keeps in a pouch around his neck, while her husband is sleeping, and then to escape with Gabi. In making the attempt, Josefa wakes Albert up; he beats her, and she kills him with his gun. Gabi vanishes, and Toni, still in love with Josefa, tries to make the murder look like suicide but is spotted by a gendarme, to whom he claims responsibility for the crime. He is killed on the railway bridge as he tries to escape.
In 1934, Renoir was at a difficult juncture in his career. He had just completed a string of films that flopped at the box office, though most of them would become classics: Night at the Crossroads (1932), Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), Chotard and Company (1933), Madame Bovary (1934). The real-life story that inspired Toni was brought to him by a school friend, a police superintendent who wrote fiction under the name Jacques Levert. Renoir developed the script with Carl Einstein, an art critic whose contribution the filmmaker subsequently minimized (his name was withdrawn from the credits). Another friend of Renoir’s provided money to set up a production company, Les films d’aujourd’hui. But Toni was finally made possible by the involvement of the great playwright and filmmaker Marcel Pagnol, who supplied more funds and his own equipment, production facilities in Marseille, and part of the cast, most notably Blavette (who was then shooting Pagnol’s Angèle), Jenny Hélia, and Édouard Delmont, who plays Toni’s friend Fernand, thus anchoring Toni in the cinéma méridional. Renoir brought Max Dalban, who had appeared in several of his films, and Celia Montalván, a Mexican music-hall star then working in Spain.
“Toni is one of the rare French films to depict the South as a region where people work.”
“The film goes out of its way to present a society in which class provides a stronger bond than national or regional identity, anticipating Renoir’s 1937 Grand Illusion.”
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