Jean Renoir Jonathan Rosenbaum - Essay

Jonathan Rosenbaum

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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…. 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…. [The] muddy fadeouts and slightly bumpy pans are all part of the film's charm and integrity. They are intimately related to what makes the film historically important: the choice of milieu and exclusively natural rural locations, the use of unknown actors and local non-professionals, and the risks and beauties of direct sound within this rough-and-ready context…. [An] occasional choppiness in the narrative as it carries us over three years tends to make the pleasures of the film more localised than continuous, but at the same time there is an effective play of 'internal rhymes' that strives to bridge the gaps…. Such details help to override the awkwardness and sense of strain that crops up from time to time in some of the performances…. Yet even these lapses often serve the positive function of bringing us closer to the people in the film, if not the characters. What one ultimately carries away from Toni, in fact, is a memory of felt presences rather than incarnations. (p. 237)

Jonathan Rosenbaum, "'Toni'," in Monthly Film Bulletin (copyright © The British Film Institute, 1974), Vol. 41, No. 489, October, 1974, pp. 236-37.