In 1934, Jean Renoir stepped off the soundstage and headed to the South of France, where he captured vivid human drama amid the bucolic splendor and everyday social rituals of the countryside. Based on a true story and set in a community of immigrants living, working, and loving on the margins of French society, Toni follows the eponymous Italian migrant (Charles Blavette), whose tempestuous affairs with two women—the faithful Marie (Jenny Hélia) and the flirtatious Josefa (Celia Montalván)—unleash a wave of tragedy. Making use of nonprofessional actors, on-location shooting, and the resources of the great Marcel Pagnol’s Provence studio, Renoir crafts a marvel of poetic feeling that became a precursor to Italian neorealism and a favorite of the directors of the French New Wave.
The Criterion Collection finally gets around to releasing Jean Renoir’s Toni, presenting the film on a dual-layer disc with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. Thanks to the fact they waited, Criterion has been able to make use of a new 4K restoration undertaken by Gaumont (with the support of the CNC and L’Immagine Ritrovata), sourced from the 35mm original camera negative and a 35mm fine-grain positive.
The film’s now around 85-years old, though you’d never know it looking at this presentation. It’s incredibly clean, first off, with only a handful of blemishes appearing throughout, whether they be minor marks or mild scratches. Secondly, the image manages to be highly detailed and sharp, at least when the source allows it. There are a number of scenes where objects, including people, look a little soft and fuzzy, but a lot of this may just come down to focus as objects in the background or foreground come off a bit sharper. When the image is sharp and in focus detail is very good. Grain is also rendered well, if a bit noisy or sharpened in a couple of places.
As I noted previously, a couple of source elements were used: the negative and a fine-grain positive. Sometimes it's obvious when the source elements change but in this case I couldn’t detect a change in source as there are no jarring differences between sequences or shots, and the image remains consistently stable throughout. At worst, some shots are a bit grainier than others, so maybe that’s where the differences between elements exist. Contrast and gray levels also look good throughout, never shifting significantly, and blacks are rich without crushing out details. The use of multiple sources doesn’t show in the end, and the overall presentation looks unbelievably good, especially for the film’s age.
Criterion presents the film with a lossless PCM 1.0 monaural soundtrack. Again, considering its age, it comes off sounding much better than I was expecting. There’s some background noise, but thew soundtrack is clean otherwise, and fidelity is pretty good. Some distortion is present but it’s pretty mild. Overall it sounds good.
Criterion manages to dig up a handful of supplements for this edition. The nicest one is the audio commentary featuring Kent Jones and Phillip Lopate, recorded originally in 2005 for Master of Cinema’s out-of-print region 2 DVD for the film. It’s an academic track, but a surprisingly energetic one, with the two moving from topic to topic, point to point in a pretty brisk manner, giving it a surprisingly loose feel. That loose, unplanned feel, though, leads to them stepping over each other’s comments from time to time, but they still manage to cover the topics they want to. They explain how and why the film is considered a pre-cursor to Italian neorealism, talk about Renoir’s other work prior, how Toni shifted him as a director, and contextualize the film of the time, from what’s presented on screen to how French audiences would have probably reacted to it. They also talk about the technical aspects of it, from its camerawork to its editing, as well as its use of actual locations. It’s a good track and I’m very pleased Criterion saw it was worth licensing and saving.
There are then three other features that are exclusive to this release. Things start off with a 3-minute introduction by Renoir, recorded for French television in the 60’s (he had recorded them for broadcasts and Criterion has presented them in some of their other Renoir titles), and it features the director explaining how a “severe attack of realism” led him to making the film. This is then followed by another part of Jacques Rivette’s three-parter on Jean Renoir for Cinéma de notre temps, the other episodes appearing on Criterion’s releases for Rules of the Game and La chienne (the episodes are usually a bit more specific to the respective films of those editions). This one, running 98-minutes, focuses more on Renoir’s early work, and the changing of his approach to filmmaking as French cinema was also changing, which led to Toni. I swore I had seen this episode before but I’m realizing that each episode is edited similarly, getting interviews with Renoir in the same locations: a café, a screening room, outdoors… wherever, then just jumping between these locations throughout the episode. Other people who worked with Renoir on the films they’re discussing also show up, and actor Charles Blavette shows up at one point to talk about Toni.
Christopher Faulkner has then finally put together a 25-minute visual essay on the film, read by actress Jen Cohn. The essay covers some of Renoir’s silent work, his move to sound, and then how he was pushed to find more independent methods of financing, which would allow him to make a film like Toni. On top of how the film may have inspired Italian Neorealism, the essay also covers the immigrant communities of the time that are depicted in the film, and then the real-life story that inspired it. The essay also mentions a longer cut of the film (which ran an extra 28-minutes), though only one deleted scene is known, thanks to a production photo. It’s wonderfully put together and Cohn does a perfect job leading the viewer through it.
A fold-out insert offers an essay on the film by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau, along with a reprint of an introduction Renoir wrote for the film in 1956, the director explaining his reasoning behind doing this “experiment.” Overall it doesn’t look like a lot of content is here, but between the commentary and the video essay this edition more than covers the impact and importance of this film in relation to Renoir’s work and cinema in general.
A strong special edition sporting a gorgeous looking presentation and features around the film's importance.