In its opening, Toni is established as an immigrant’s story. Foreign workers (Spanish and Italian) go to the south of France to work the quarries. The opening “prologue”–it’s never announced as a prologue, but there’s an “end of prologue” card–shows the workers’ arrival. The end also shows workers arriving, three years later, after the title character, Toni, has had some adventures. Problematically, he only gets a name after the prologue’s over so it’s hard to recognize him once the first part of the film starts. Toni’s present action is three years, split into one section a year after Toni arrives and has found a place (well, a girlfriend–his landlady) and another, two years later. Because of the split, the film mostly concentrates on melodrama–there’s a love triangle (or quartet, it’s reveal is one of the film’s only decent final act moments)–but never on anything interesting. We never see Toni become friends with the other workers, even though these friendships are incredibly important to the first part of the film. There’s one character–who’s in the entire film–who doesn’t even get a name until the last scene. We also never see Toni and his landlady’s romance, which might have been nice, since–by the time we arrive–he’s a jerk and she’s a nag. There are some moments of the second romance, the one leading into the love triangle, but when the film skips two years… well, it’s just hard for them to have any resonance.
Watching the film, I thought it was one of Renoir’s earliest works, but it’s not, it’s ten years into his career. Some of the shots are the regular, wonderful Renoir shots and I was all set with a sentence about how no one composed for black and white like Renoir did. But there’s a raw element to Toni. The focus is soft when it shouldn’t be and, since it’s filmed on location and some of the actors aren’t actors (there’s a great cutaway from some worker looking straight at the camera, followed by a couple kids who can’t keep a straight face), Toni feels amateurish. None of the lead actors–except Max Dalban as the dimensionless villain–are good, which doesn’t help the film either.
The film has an interesting pace. The opening moves, the middle drags, and the end is somewhere in between. Unfortunately, the perception of the end might be affected by how bad the film is getting. When Renoir ties it into the pretty, “immigrant worker story” bow, Toni flattens, losing anything (not much) it might have been doing. Still, since the quality ranges throughout–getting worse and worse, unfortunately–and starts reasonably high, the film’s not an unpleasant experience. By the end, for example, I’d forgotten I had been expecting a lot more from Renoir.
Directed by Jean Renoir; screenplay by Renoir, based on a story by Jacques Levert; director of photography, Claude Renoir; edited by Suzanne de Troeye and Marguerite Renoir; music by Paul Bozzi; released by Films Marcel Pagnol.
Starring Celia Montalván (Josefa), Jenny Helia (Marie), Édouard Delmont (Fernand), Max Dalban (Albert), Andrex (Gabi), Michel Kovachevitch (Sebastian) and Charles Blavette (Toni).