Combustible Celluloid
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With: Charles Blavette, Celia Montalván, Édouard Delmont, Max Dalban, Jenny Hélia, Michel Kovachevitch, Andrex
Written by: Jean Renoir, Jacques Levert
Directed by: Jean Renoir
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: French, with English subtitles
Running Time: 84
Date: 08/25/2020

Toni (1935)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Wasp Souls

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Jean Renoir's Toni was something of a departure for him, an attempt at a new kind of realism that many say could have influenced the Italian Neo-Realism movement of the 1940s. This seems possible since future director Luchino Visconti reportedly worked as an assistant director on the film, and later kicked things off in Italy with his own Ossessione. Certainly it was a precursor to Renoir's own masterpiece The River, although Toni is ultimately slightly less than that. Shot on location and using mostly untrained actors, the movie begins as Toni (Charles Blavette) arrives in the South of France from Italy, looking for work. He finds lodging with Marie (Jenny Hélia) and lands a job in a quarry. Some time later, he has become Marie's lover, more out of convenience than passion. But when he meets the Spanish Josefa (Celia Montalván), he falls deeply for her; they share an incredibly sensuous scene in which he plucks a wasp stinger from her back and sucks out the poison. Unfortunately, Toni's monstrous boss Albert (Max Dalban) rapes Josefa, and she winds up marrying him instead. The melodramatic story culminates with money, a murder, and a tragedy. Fortunately, Renoir's touch is so warm and earthy that the movie never seems too cheap or frivolous. The cinematography by Claude Renoir captures a naturalistic, lived-in sensation, wherein you can almost touch the earth and feel the sun.

The Criterion Collection has released Toni on DVD and Blu-ray for 2020, in a beautiful, restored transfer and an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. It includes a commentary track by critics Kent Jones and Phillip Lopate that seems to have come from the 2006 Masters of Cinema DVD release. It also includes a brief introduction by Renoir (filmed in the 1960s), a video essay about the making of Toni by film scholar Christopher Faulkner, and a full-length episode of "Cinéastes de notre temps" from 1967, directed by Jacques Rivette and featuring a conversation with actor Blavette. Film scholar Ginette Vincendeau contributes the liner notes essay.

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