CRITICS HAVE accurately called Toni a neo-realist film eleven years ahead of its time. In a decade of pictures made in studios, it as shot entirely on location in the Midi, using local inhabitants as well as professional actors. I feels completely true to the environment and lives of immigrant French peasants. As Richard Roud puts it, "Renoir's ambition was that the public should imagine that an invisible camera had filmed various phases of a Crime passionel without the human beings involved in the action having noticed."
Renoir frequently used locations (Boudu Sauvé des Eaux, Swamp Water) in preference to his studio sets. Even in his studio pictures (La Marseillaise, This Land is Mine) he commands a realistic acting style which is wholly faithful to the milieu depicted.
Toni begins with a group of immigrant entering a southern French village, and follows them through a few years of work, marriage, estrangement, friendship, death--all the processes of their lives. The setting is strongly established in the first shots (in a train); and its importance, in the characters' conversations and in the shooting style, is maintained throughout. In outdoor scenes the characters are integrated into the landscape, made part of the natural pattern. These shots of the land have a geometrical quality of which the figures are only one element.
Scenes inside buildings are introduced by camera investigations of the buildings: a wedding, by pans up and down the outside was of the church, only then cutting inside to show the people involved; a house wherein a shooting has just occurred is introduced by a track into the front door. This prominence that Renoir gives to the land--both dramatically (opening and closing scenes with shots of the land) and visually (making human figures a part of the total land-patten)--establishes the land as constant through his characters' changes, the factor determining their actions.
This land is completely unified and consistent; all his shots have the same quality. But such unity is not schematic. You couldn't draw a map of the countryside: where is the railroad station in relation to the mine, or to Marie's house, or to the lake? Even within single sequences the shots are discontinuous: when Marie tries to drown herself, Toni running through the weeds trying to find her could be hundred miles away. This setting is not something documented but something created. You can feel its strength but not organize it into a plan. The land is unified because all of the shots have the same tremendous evocative power, because they express the same feeling.
THERE ARE in fact two basic sorts of shots in the film. The first, described above, shows the land alone or with figures integrated into it, part of its order. The second is a close shot of one or more people, showing little more than their faces. The dramatic function of the long shots is to show people carrying out these close-shot decisions. Given he strength and singleness of their human passions, the long shots have a quality of fatality. This quality accounts for the film's feeling of determinism, of lack of choice, as the drama proceeds. The close shots, which could show Renoir's characters free and in-themselves, express a strength of character which is passion determines their actions in long shot. At the same time, all their actions (however passionate and personal) fit into the land; an finally, the land is not documented, but created by Renoir.
This feeling and form of a closed work, a film completely created, extends also to the plot. The plot sets one character--the most passionate, the artist--against his mileau (land and other characters). As fixed in his passion and character a they in theirs, he is doomed: his actions will cause his destruction. We see him in the hero of Boudu Sauve des Eaux, in the heroine of Petite Marchande d'Allumettes and of Madame Bovary, in Batala of Le Crime de M. Lange, in the aviator of La Regle du Jeu. Renoir expresses the fixity of the particular film's world stylistically, ending the film with a few shots which show the world unchanged by the death of the maverick. Thus Petite Marchande ends with flat, illusionistic images; Boudu shows Boudu and the Lestingois in their completely separate environments, one free, one constricted; Lange and Valentine of Crime walk away into a dream-image.
The plot is circular: the world is unchanged, a character is dead--but our understanding of the milieu (characters and setting) has been amazing enlarged. The end of Toni repeats the first shot and it is frightening. Filled with an incredibly strong feeling of the world of film--a feeling almost of aesthetic passion--we are unable to act. This closed world, Renoir's creation, is fixed.