Set among immigrants and laborers in an unglamorous corner of the South of France, Toni (1935) fulfills Jean Renoir’s wish to make a film in “a style as close as possible to that of daily encounters,” as he wrote in May 1956. The title role is played by Charles Blavette, a native of the area with no formal training whose low-key performance makes Toni’s tragic plight memorable. With its use of nonprofessional actors, extensive location shooting, and direct sound recording brimming with accents (southern, Parisian, Italian, Spanish, Mexican, Corsican), Toni constitutes a benchmark in realist filmmaking.
After the credits, a title proudly heralds the film as “A True Story Told by Jean Renoir.” While not strictly speaking a political film, Toni signals a move on Renoir’s part toward a socially committed cinema and is justifiably recognized as anticipating Italian neorealism—even if the neorealists may never have seen the film (with the possible exception of Luchino Visconti, who would work with Renoir in 1936 on A Day in the Country but did not on Toni, as is sometimes claimed). Yet as steeped as it is in the social world of the midthirties, the film’s narrative, inspired by a crime-of-passion fait divers, is also highly melodramatic. Renoir recognized this contradiction in his 1974 autobiography My Life and My Films: “While I imagined I was filming a squalid episode based on real life, I was recounting, almost despite myself, a heartrending and poetic love story.”
Toni opens with the arrival by train of a group of Italian immigrants, including the title character, in Martigues, a small town northwest of Marseille, in a quickly industrializing region. Toni finds work at the local quarry and a room in a guesthouse run by Marie (Jenny Hélia). Two years after this prologue, Marie and Toni are living together, but he has tired of her because he is attracted to Josefa (Celia Montalván), a Spanish woman who lives on a farm with her uncle Sebastian (André Kovachevitch). Toni asks Sebastian for Josefa’s hand, but then she is “seduced” by Albert (Max Dalban), the foreman at the quarry. In a double ceremony, Josefa marries Albert, and Toni, heartbroken, weds Marie. Two more years on, Albert and Josefa have a daughter; Albert is abusive and unfaithful. Sebastian dies, and Josefa’s cousin Gabi (Andrex) persuades her to try to retrieve the farm’s income, which Albert keeps in a pouch around his neck, while her husband is sleeping, and then to escape with Gabi. In making the attempt, Josefa wakes Albert up; he beats her, and she kills him with his gun. Gabi vanishes, and Toni, still in love with Josefa, tries to make the murder look like suicide but is spotted by a gendarme, to whom he claims responsibility for the crime. He is killed on the railway bridge as he tries to escape.
In 1934, Renoir was at a difficult juncture in his career. He had just completed a string of films that flopped at the box office, though most of them would become classics: Night at the Crossroads (1932), Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), Chotard and Company (1933), Madame Bovary (1934). The real-life story that inspired Toni was brought to him by a school friend, a police superintendent who wrote fiction under the name Jacques Levert. Renoir developed the script with Carl Einstein, an art critic whose contribution the filmmaker subsequently minimized (his name was withdrawn from the credits). Another friend of Renoir’s provided money to set up a production company, Les films d’aujourd’hui. But Toni was finally made possible by the involvement of the great playwright and filmmaker Marcel Pagnol, who supplied more funds and his own equipment, production facilities in Marseille, and part of the cast, most notably Blavette (who was then shooting Pagnol’s Angèle), Jenny Hélia, and Édouard Delmont, who plays Toni’s friend Fernand, thus anchoring Toni in the cinéma méridional. Renoir brought Max Dalban, who had appeared in several of his films, and Celia Montalván, a Mexican music-hall star then working in Spain.
“Toni is one of the rare French films to depict the South as a region where people work.”
The extensive location shooting, which took place in autumn 1934, was unusual enough to attract attention. The popular cinema magazine Pour vous ran a feature on the shoot, noting that the southern landscape had “a harsh and powerful beauty, which the sun cannot soften.” Indeed, the use of the landscape in Toni is remarkable for its avoidance of the picturesque. Along with some of Pagnol’s films, Agnès Varda’s Vagabond, and the work of Robert Guédiguian, Toni is one of the rare French films to depict the South as a region where people work. The autumnal shoot also means we do not hear the cicadas that often form a joyful aural background to films made in the area; instead, the rustling of trees and the immigrants’ songs dominate the soundtrack. Renoir foregrounds the locations of the quarry and the Pont de Caronte—the long iron railway viaduct that spans the canal linking the Étang de Berre to the sea—and uses the surroundings to comment on the relationships between the main characters, subtly underlining the different gender roles.
Men, unsurprisingly, are connected to the massive industrial structures, the sites of noisy, spectacular action, including a programmed explosion at the quarry and the arrival of the train over the bridge, also crossed in the film’s dramatic ending, as Toni runs frantically, his footsteps echoing, in his attempt to escape. Toni is also frequently seen in a spatially dominant position—walking to work with Fernand along a ridge with wide vistas behind them, discussing his dream of making wine while sitting at the top of the quarry—that allows both him and us to survey the landscape and the people in it. Although his dreams, including taking Josefa to South America, come to nothing, his mastery of space is such that it enables us to understand the social relations embedded within that space.
In a more conventional film, one would expect to find the women indoors, but in Toni some key scenes with women take place outdoors, though they are filmed in secluded, low-lying, or peaceful places. The famous scene in which Josefa flirts with Toni by asking him to remove a wasp’s sting from her back (leading him to unbutton her dress and suck the wound) takes place on a path encased by high hedges. Marie argues with Toni about Josefa in a wood, under a canopy of trees. Wanting to kill herself after he refuses to give up Josefa, Marie rows out to sea in a small boat, the water as flat as a mirror. This sequence particularly justifies Renoir’s description of the film as telling “a heartrending and poetic love story.” The different positioning of men and women within the landscape is to some extent naturalistically linked to their occupations. At the same time, it signals a gendered distinction between the social (coded as male) and the poetic (coded as female). It also hints at the film’s ambivalent sexual politics, pointing to tensions between progressive libertarian attitudes (Marie and Toni initially live together unmarried, without anyone batting an eye) and a deeply patriarchal worldview, which the film is both critical of and complicit with.
Toni is not a tale of strong men and weak women. Keith Reader is right to call it a “regional melodrama of failed masculinity” (in an essay published in A Companion to Jean Renoir, a 2013 volume I coedited with Alastair Phillips). As he writes, the “three main male characters are brutishly excessive (Albert), craven (Gabi), or curiously unassertive, like Toni himself.” Indeed, Toni complains that Marie “coddles [him] like a child” yet stays with her until she throws him out. He threatens Albert over Josefa yet doesn’t follow through. The patriarch Sebastian is no better; when Toni asks for Josefa’s hand, her uncle says that they should consult her, but then he immediately agrees to marry her to Albert instead. By contrast, the two women, Josefa and Marie, come across as forceful, in part thanks to vivid performances by Montalván and especially Hélia, who infuses Marie with dignity even when the narrative humiliates her. Like all the characters in the film, they work—Marie runs the guesthouse, and Josefa works at her uncle’s farm—although we rarely actually see them performing their tasks, unlike the men. At breakfast with Marie’s lodgers, it is Fernand who makes the coffee. Josefa’s carting the laundry around is really a pretext for flirting with Toni—though, in a ghastly reversal, Albert eventually uses that laundry as a prop in his assault of her.
“The film goes out of its way to present a society in which class provides a stronger bond than national or regional identity, anticipating Renoir’s 1937 Grand Illusion.”
The men are often seen in groups (the lodgers, the workers at the quarry, the charcoal burners), while Marie and Josefa—the only women in the film to make more than the briefest of appearances—appear isolated. There is no female community to match the male community, which surely defies the rules of realism. Nor is there any sisterly solidarity; the first thing we hear about Josefa is Marie calling her “a female on the prowl.” Toni and Albert are also competitors, but their jealousy is rooted in their working relationship, while Marie and Josefa’s rivalry is only sexual, reinforced by a series of animal metaphors applied to them throughout the film. Marie points out that Josefa is other, foreign (“hardly speaking a word of French”), but the film otherwise goes out of its way to present a society in which class provides a stronger bond than national or regional identity, anticipating Renoir’s 1937 Grand Illusion. Notwithstanding Sebastian’s isolated remark about “dangerous Arabs,” a black worker is perfectly integrated into the group. The film clearly espouses the much-quoted line from an immigrant worker to another: “My country is wherever I can earn enough to eat.”
If the film at times falls back on gender stereotyping, it also explicitly shows women’s exploitation as part of an oppressive patriarchal culture. When Josefa serves wine to Sebastian, Gabi, and Albert, she is not invited to sit down with them, let alone take part in their discussion. As Gabi quips, “You’re part of the livestock.” Yet our sympathy with Josefa is compromised by her characterization as fickle and a tease, a view reinforced when we see her ready to follow the evidently dishonest Gabi after Albert’s death. Nowhere is the film’s ambivalence in this respect more acute than in the scene in which Albert forces himself on Josefa. The episode seems to cause unease among Renoir scholars, who have referred to it with euphemisms such as “possession,” “seduction,” or her “succumbing,” although it is clearly a rape, as intimated by several violent motifs. Albert arrives on his noisy motorbike and literally leaps toward Josefa as she is hanging laundry out to dry. He clumsily brings the clothesline down, then tears off the strap of a flimsy vest. After some rough foreplay, during which he comments on the fact that she is wearing nothing under her dress, he drags Josefa offscreen—despite her protestations that he is hurting her and that she does not want to go any further—while using a couple of ribald metaphors (“I want meat with my gravy”; “When I start a meal, I like to finish it”).
A high-angle shot shows the two figures through the branches of a tree, and, later, Josefa rising from the ground, her hair disheveled, in familiar cinematic shorthand for what has happened. Albert’s brutality has been exposed, but the film’s construction of Josefa as an “easygoing” woman who is “very good at making men chase after her”—together with her passivity after the assault (“That’s how it is,” she tells Tony)—prompts a reading in which she “asked for it.” And yet the sexual crime is shown with a degree of explicitness that was rare, if not unique, in the cinema of the time (Renoir would leave Estelle’s rape in 1936’s The Crime of Monsieur Lange offscreen, and Séverine’s in 1938’s La bête humaine safely in the past).
With the exception of the despicable Albert, the characters in Toni are complex figures—foreshadowing Renoir’s famous pronouncement in The Rules of the Game (1939): “The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons.” Josefa, realizing that Toni has claimed he killed Albert to save her, goes to the police to confess (too late, as it turns out), and Marie, despite having thrown Toni out, sends him food and wine, saying, “I don’t want to see him again, but I wish him no harm.” The two women, ostensibly the source of discord, are not made responsible for men’s failings. Nevertheless, Toni struggles to see them as social beings in the same way that men are, reflecting the wider context of France between the wars, when women were controlled by oppressive patriarchal codes and had to fight hard to assert themselves, including professionally. This was the case in the film industry as elsewhere.
The Pour vous article on the shoot of Toni lists members of the crew, in addition to the cast. They are very nearly all men: director, producer, director of photography, set photographer, etc. Only one woman appears, as “Marguerite,” with a teasing question: “Script girl? Yes, of course, but much more than that too.” It is unclear whether the writer is talking about “Marguerite” in her capacity as Renoir’s partner in life or as the editor and, indeed, continuity supervisor (“script girl”) of the film, or both. Marguerite Houllé (known professionally as Marguerite Renoir or sometimes Houllé-Renoir, although they never married) appears in the credits of Toni as coeditor, alongside Suzanne de Troeye, the two of them billed together as “Mmes Marguerite et S. de Troeye.” It was not unusual then for editors, who were almost always women, to double as “script girls.” Like being a secretary, the latter role was assumed to require “feminine” qualities. That patronizing “Mme Marguerite,” also a common convention at the time, speaks volumes about the way such professions mirrored women’s condition at large. Yet Houllé played another crucial role in Renoir’s life and on Toni. A Communist who had been born into a working-class family, she had introduced Renoir to political commitment, and it was likely through her intercession that Renoir and his team were invited to Moscow to show Toni. The film would not be a financial success, but its positive critical reception consolidated Renoir’s reputation as a filmmaker of the left. Houllé’s influence on Renoir would continue to bear fruit in the extraordinary series of films examining the condition of French working people that he made with her collaboration in the thirties, of which Toni was the first.