Blu-ray Review: Toni | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Thursday, September 24th, 2020  


Studio: The Criterion Collection

Sep 11, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Jean Renoir was struck with a desire for realism, and so off he went with a camera and small crew to the south of France to live among the immigrant laborers and tell a story drawn from their expressions and rhythms of life.

The resulting film, Toni, from 1935, became an important precursor to 1940s neorealism in Italy, mid-century kitchen sink realism in England and the French New Wave. Renoir, in an interview included with the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray release, compares his urge for naturalism to something like a sudden illness, describing it as a “severe attack.”

“It was one of those moments when you believe that the only way to make a film is to record with photographic precision everything you see and capture the specific texture of everything you place before the camera,” he said. Perhaps it was not so different than the urge to tell the truth after running with a lie.

Toni opens with the title character arriving by train in Martigues, France. He finds a room at a boarding house and a job in a quarry. The farmers and miners are a hardscrabble mix of Spanish and Italian and French, and Toni finds himself in a love triangle (or parallelogram) with his girlfriend Marie, coworker Albert, and paramour Josefa. There are couplings and decouplings, an untrustworthy cousin, a kind uncle, marriages, births, a gun and climactic crime that inspired the story, all told in a brisk 84-minute run time.

It’s impossible to untether Toni — which is less clever by half than his major works of class satire (The Rules of the Game, etc) — from its place in film history. And much of the pleasure is watching a master tackle and improvise a style of filmmaking unique from his previous and future films, perhaps more so than the story itself on screen.

Renoir’s observations and tender reception to his temporary surroundings in Martigues provide another pleasure — the guitarist who appears like a Greek chorus equipped with the folk songs of the working class — the salt-of-the-earth children and other non-actors who might accidentally stare into the camera. It’s a gift of time travel for current and future audiences. Modern eyes would never confuse the film with a documentary, the mise en scene is too precise, actors huddle in tight groups to fit in the boxy 1.37:1 aspect ratio. And it’s a scripted story, carefully planned and executed, but it does leave the clear impression of real people in a specific time and place, living real lives and finding unscripted endings off camera.

Renoir explains his approach to filmmaking with the famous Sartre quote, “existence precedes essence.” Only through creating art can he find its meaning, not before. In the bucolic setting of Martigues, Renoir allowed himself to be conquered by the elements of his surrounding, as he said. What he found were people of all backgrounds with more in common than difference, people who were not divided by nations but united in work.

Follow Ed McMenamin on twitter at @edmcmenamin



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