Jean Renoir is a poet of murder. That’s not how he’s typically described. We’re supposed to talk about his films’ humanism, lyricism and generosity, the subtleties of his philosophy, the details of his composition and camera gestures, the expansive protean nature of his output. True, all true, very true, and none of that stops him from envisioning a dangerous and deadly world, whether for star-crossed lovers or other human animals.
Consider that Renoir’s classic proto-noirs got remade by Hollywood in full-fledged noir mode. His second talkie,
La Chienne (1931), which basically means “the bitch”, was remade by Fritz Lang as Scarlet Street (1945). Lang’s film partly refashions his own The Woman in the Window (1944), but that just tells me that he was already aware of a Renoir parallel. Lang later remade Renoir’s La Bête Humaine (1938) as Human Desire (1954). Perhaps Lang took to heart the Renoir title The Crime of Monsieur Lange (Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, 1936).
In short, we must admit that Renoir works very frequently and persuasively with dark themes. Maybe we’d be pushing it to say he does it as much as Lang, but the two deserve comparison, as Lang understood. During Renoir’s sojourn in Hollywood, he contributed an entry to the postwar noir cycle,
The Woman on the Beach (1947), and there’s much to say about the overlooked Swamp Water (1941).
Renoir’s third talkie was an adaptation of one of Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret mysteries, La Nuit du carrefour (1932), which we shan’t discuss as we haven’t seen it–and where the heck is it, by the way? We’re waiting, and we have hope, because Criterion has finally graced us with a new 4K digital restoration of Toni (1935), which to my knowledge has never been on home video in Region 1 in any format.
Toni is a grim piece of work saturated in summer sunshine and tree-speckled shadows. The critical accoutrements surrounding the film position it as a kind of quasi-documentary experiment and a forerunner to Italian neorealism. In fact, Renoir himself makes these assertions in his 1961 intro to a French TV broadcast, and it’s easy to be seduced by his avuncular authority.
He points out that it’s shot in real locations with many local working-class non-professional actors, which was unusual for French cinema of the time. The filmmaker who came closest to that aesthetic was independent filmmaker Marcel Pagnol, a poet of the rural paysan who provided material aid to this project, including actors, crew and studio, and who served as consultant and distributor. Nobody could yet speak of “neorealism”.
Still, we can’t just swallow everything the master says. When he declares in the intro and in Jacques Rivette‘s lengthy TV documentary on Renoir, whose first part is included here, that the documentary nature of the film means the camera was just plunked down haphazardly and put at the service of his actors, a klaxon should ring in the head of anyone who’s just sat through it. Not a moment is composed haphazardly.
Master cinematographer Claude Renoir (the director’s nephew) works wonders of lyrical lighting with exquisitely placed angles and continual pans and glides, which are all the more impressive considering the bulky camera and rough terrain. Every frame could be a picture on the wall, and many shots are openly thrilling: the wasp-sting seduction as Toni sucks out the poison, the carefully framed explosion in the quarry, the attempted drowning that can only be called lyrical (again), the tracks and pans involving the railroad bridge (a construction of both reality and symbol), and of course, the murder scene with its intense subjective closeups as the camera dollies in.
Like bookends whose meaning has changed by what’s come between them, the film opens and closes with scenes of foreign workers from Spain and Italy arriving by train in Martigues, a village in central France. In one of the more pointed moments, two of the heavily accented foreign workers who are already working on the railroad, all the livelong day, complain about these new foreigners arriving to take their jobs. They’ve even learned how to be “French” in this regard. This moment goes from gentle satire of xenophobia to a moment of political philosophy when one of the men decides that workers all belong to one country.
A word about this socio-historical context. The film is based on a real incident that occurred in Martiques the previous decade and which Renoir had learned from old friend, a local police commissioner who intended to write a novel about it under the name Jacques Levert. That novel remained unwritten. The film might be set in its present day or perhaps ten years earlier; it’s impossible to say. The film’s opening credits praise the region for its ability to create an ideal multicultural society of immigrants, seemingly a model of how the world should work.
This influx of foreign workers would have remained relevant in 1935. Spain was undergoing the turmoil that would shortly lead to the Spanish Civil War, which would create war refugees in France. That Fascist coup put Francisco Franco in power, and a Fascist coup had already put Mussolini in power in Italy in 1922. So Renoir, who was on the cusp of making films for France’s anti-fascist Popular Front, would have been aware that political unrest is partly the context for these bucolic visitors from Spain and Italy.
None of this is mentioned and needn’t have been mentioned, for Renoir is “merely” telling a tragic romance of an Italian man and a Spanish woman who have sought economic refuge in the heart of a foreign country (France) and come to an unfortunate result. Any wider implications must be perceived by the viewers in all these ravishing images of down-at-heel foreigners arriving by train full of hope and song, their few belongings in a bag. Those troubadour guitar songs provide the film’s only music, a touch of folklore or myth.
One detail that may strike the modern viewer is the presence of a black man amid the workers. You might have assumed it would be hard to find such a person in the middle of France. That’s clearly not so, and Renoir has valuably chosen to cast him as a sign of the foreign. His presence is accepted without remark and everyone treats him as a friendly equal, sharing their living quarters and meals without fuss. In their commentary replicated from a British DVD of 2006, critics Phillip Lopate and Kent Jones discuss Renoir’s tendency to cast actors who resemble himself, and it seems to me that even this man resembles Renoir.
(courtesy of The Criterion Collection)
The story concerns Toni (Charles Blavette) and his love for Josefa (Celia Montalván), who has married a local boss (Max Dalban) while Toni married his petulant landlady (Jenny Hélia) after they’d been sleeping together for a while. All romances are mismatched and lead to tragedy. The End. What matters is the steady eye for detail and beauty and the subtle truths and complexities of human behavior in a world that doesn’t have bad or good people so much as people who do bad or good things, depending on the circumstances.
Renoir’s vision must have been more populous and complicated, because a visual essay by academic Christopher Faulkner states that the film was released at 112 minutes. When it proved unsuccessful at the box office (though reviewers liked it), Renoir cut it to its current length of about 85 minutes, which explains the many brief shots and fade-outs. We can only guess at what’s missing in this simple story.
The commentary makes many connections with other Renoir films and other filmmakers. It repeats the misinformation, corrected in another extra, that Lucchino Visconti participated in this movie. In fact, he worked with Renoir at later times. Renoir encouraged him to make Ossessione (1943), which is often heralded as the launch of Italian neorealism, although that’s complicated. Since that’s based on James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), we can say that neorealism has as much connection to noir melodrama as Renoir’s humanism.
Toni does engage with melodrama despite its “documentary” elements and its lyricism, just as it engages with social and political themes. As Lopate states, Renoir’s scenes and films have many contrapuntal elements that contrast and harmonize, so that more than one thing is always going on. We might as well call it life.