Review: 4K Restoration of Renoir's 'Toni' Is Breathtaking

by Sam Cohen

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday August 25, 2020

Review: 4K Restoration of Renoir's 'Toni' Is Breathtaking

Jean Renoir has said multiple times that "Toni" came from a severe attack of realism that he had. That the only way to record the film was with photographic precision, so you can capture the specific texture of anything you place before the camera. It's true that Renoir's approach predated neorealism, but the documentary feel of the film isn't without the French filmmaker's trademark humanism. You can feel in every frame that the camera is following the characters rather than the action. It's still every bit as breathtaking as it was in 1935, like the movie camera had been freed from the demands of the soundstage and was able to flow freely outside with the new ability to capture reality.

"Toni" arrives on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection with a new 4K digital restoration that looks clean and sharp, and upholds the thick textures of every frame. It's one of those video presentations that reminds you how film restoration tools should be used to preserve and empower work rather than remove what makes it so unique. That being said, Renoir was and still is one of the most famous French filmmakers to have ever lived, so don't consider me surprised that a restoration of one of his films was done with care. Add in some great special features, including a new visual essay by Christopher Faulkner about Renoir's earlier films, and you have an essential home entertainment release.

Based upon a real story of crime in Southern France, "Toni" charts the lives of a group of immigrants working on a quarry and farm in Provence. Toni (Charles Blavette) is one of the many people, yet it's his life that drives the narrative. He falls for a local woman named Marie (Jenny Hlia), then is taken by a Spanish woman named Josefa (Celia Montalvn). His warring desires for both women spell his doom when he realizes that Josefa is locked into an abusive relationship with her brute of a husband.

Renoir was a bit heartbroken by the lukewarm reception to "Toni" at the box office, although film critics of the time did nothing but heap praise on it. That's why he returned to the soundstage soon thereafter, but it's clear that "Toni" left an imprint on him for decades to come. It was his work with direct sound, tracking shots, and long takes in this work that defined how he continued to make films.

All in all, "Toni" is not the misfire Renoir thought it was, and it's certainly still regarded highly in his body of work. It's a delight to see the film get the restoration and home video presentation it so rightly deserves. Pick this release up immediately. Other special features include:

Episode of "Cinastes de notre temps" from 1967 on Renoir, directed by Jacques Rivette and featuring a conversation with actor Charles Blavette about the film.

Introduction by Jean Renoir from 1961

Audio commentary from 2006 featuring critics Kent Jones and Phillip Lopate


Criterion Collection Blu-ray