A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Monday, June 12, 2017

Toni (Jean Renoir, 1935)

Authenticity in movies is like sincerity in politics: If you can fake it, you've got it made. Jean Renoir's Toni is a venture into realism, the quest for the kind of authenticity produced by using non-professional actors and shooting on location without resort to studio-built sets. Like the films of the Italian neorealist directors who admired and imitated Toni, it focuses on the struggles of the working class, in this case the immigrant workers from Spain, Italy, and North Africa who come to the South of France seeking jobs on the farms and, in the case of the Italian Antonio "Toni" Canova (Charles Blavette), the quarries. The film begins with Toni's arrival on a train; as the workers spread out on their search, we follow Toni as he knocks on the door of a boarding house run by Marie (Jenny Hélia). Then there's an abrupt cut in which time has passed and we see that Toni is now sharing Marie's bed. It's a time jump that Renoir will use several times over the course of the film. While still with Marie, Toni falls in love with Josefa (Celia Montalván), a Spanish woman, but she agrees to marry the brutish Albert (Max Dalban), who is Toni's boss at the quarry. Toni proposes that he and Marie join them in a double wedding ceremony. After another time jump, Josefa has had a baby and named Toni as the godfather, a role that doesn't please Marie at all. As the marriage of Toni and Marie disintegrates, he moves out of the house and she attempts suicide. Eventually, the relationship of Toni and Josefa ends in calamity, and as the film ends we have a reprise of the opening scene: Another train arrives, with yet another group of laborers. Toni is, as we should expect from Renoir, a work of great cinematic sophistication used to create a sense of simple immediacy, of witnessing real lives unfold. The story, while often melodramatic, maintains its documentary quality by relying on ambient sound and the deglamorization of its players. The polyglot cast is utterly convincing, and for once the viewer reliant on subtitles may be at something of an advantage over those just listening to the dialogue: Even if you know only a little French you can tell that the accents are thick and varied. But the film is also often visually quite beautiful: It was the first collaboration of Renoir with his nephew, Claude, as cinematographer, who achieves some quite striking nighttime scenes without resorting to the filtered or underexposed daylight shooting known as "day for night" or, in France, la nuit américaine.

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