This review appeared in the October 1974 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin. —J.R.
France, 1934 Director: Jean Renoir
Neither a major nor a minor work in the Renoir canon, Toni demands to be regarded more as an adventure of the director in contact with his material than as an integral and “finished” composition. If the symmetrical framing device of the train arriving with fresh immigrants at the beginning and end of the film appears somewhat forced in relation to the whole, this is likely because Renoir began with notions of a social thesis and a Zola-derived sense of fatality from which his better instincts subsequently deviated. And it is the instinctual rather than the conceptual side of Toni that renders it a living work forty years after it was made -– a distinction that might serve equally well for Zola and Stroheim. Over and around the largely melodramatic plot is draped an expansive mood of leisurely improvisation, like an ill-fitting but comfortable suit of clothes, often permitting the accidental and random to take precedence over the deliberate, the individual detail over the general design. Thus the fleeting glance of a child at the camera in the opening prologue (when the newly-arrived immigrants walk into town), the grey haziness of Sebastian’s funeral procession, the muddy fadeouts and slightly bumpy pans are all part of the film’s charm and integrity.… Read more »