Ten years ago The Guardians (Les Guardiennes) would be categorised as a chick flick by critics and reviewers alike, except in Madame France, genesis of cinematic art. Stories there catering for female issues have been a natural and popular subject matter since movies found cinema audiences. From France comes this delicate study of stoical women facing hardship and profound loss.
Usually I discuss the film score last, as an after thought, but I’ll begin with the music because in this film it is out of place. It appears and disappears at odd moments and does nothing to raise or lower our emotions. A lush orchestral theme, I thought it totally anachronistic stuck onto a story of simple farming folk, then I checked the name, Michel Legrand, a composer responsible for as many bad scores as good.
My next grumble concerns the look of the film, rural idyllic aided by a preponderance of soft focus, misty mornings, and glowing sunsets. It is far too pretty, too self-consciously picturesque, or ‘pictureskew’ as a relative used to pronounce it. Xavier Beauvois directs with one eye on the painterly images of John Millais as his guide and the Glasgow Boys when studying in Paris and creating rural images.
Life running a non-mechanised farm in rural France had to be hard summer or winter, all weathers, than we are shown. Though we see the women tire, stumble, and some fall into despair, it never quite looks as if they’re suffering undue hardship.
My last disappointment is being served a dream sequence, a nightmare, a hackneyed convention in fiction’s book. It jars, a graphic illustration of men cut down by a machine gun, a memory that could have been illustrated in subtler ways.
The story is told in chronologically in years. In moments I got to wonder how difficult a job the Continuity Assistant had, many scenes shot in one location scheduled to be edited over a number of years. Harvest scenes, for example, are used a lot placed over three decades. Are the staves at the same point in the field as before? What dress was the heroine wearing last time, and if the same one now should it not be worn and frayed?
Xavier Beauvois’s The Guardians opens on a shot of corpses strewn in mud in a World War I battlefield in France or Belgium, it doesn’t matter which, the symbolism of the moment is conveyed instantly. A heavy mist – perhaps mustard gas – hangs in the air. The soundtrack is commendably silent as the eye of the camera surveys the waste of human life with an eerie calm.
We switch to 1915 – each year is flashed on screen Beauvois cuts to a long shot of two women, Hortense Sandrail, (Nathalie Baye) and her daughter, Solange, (Laura Smet) ploughing a field with a quiet nobility that brings to mind the paintings of Jean-François Millet. This is the comparison of men killing each other on the land and women nurturing life on the land. I thought that an insightful observation until I remembered Margaret Thatcher sinking the Argentinian Belgrano with all hands on board.
The film is adapted from a 1924 novel by Ernest Pérochon, a novel I’ve not read, for the obvious reason I don’t speak more than a tourist’s French. If the film is true to the novel we are given a faithful illustrated history of changing times brought on by a cataclysmic event and the mass mechanisation that issued from it. As the women struggle with the farm’s ups and downs they begin to bring in new farming methods to ease their toils, a tractor left over from an American squad stationed nearby, a symbol of progress.
Beauvois explores the changes wrought by WWI with great sensitivity. We have seen these scenes in other films, most notably in the short stories of Thomas Hardy, and there are strong echoes of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song. Farm life is just as interesting set in France, more so because the French were so close to the front line of battle.
As the story progresses and Hortense’s two sons, Georges, (Cyril Descours) and Constant, (Nicolas Giraud), are sent off to live or die, a new character appears, one that will have a profound impact on the dynamic of the family’s relationships. The young, healthy local men are on the battlefield leaving the old and the sick to see to village life, so Hortense employs a woman, Francine (Iris Bry), to help her out.
Francine is something of a plain Jane, a stray waif, intelligent, observant, enigmatic, trustworthy. Her tumble of red hair signals a survivor. She is keen to be a family member and works hard and diligently without complaint to attain acceptance.
The Guardians, reminded me of the English novel Aikenfield (1974) a portrait of an English village directed for the cinema by theatre director Peter Hall. Beauvois and his art director recreate a realistic vision – to my mind – of French farm life in the 1920’s, ploughing, sowing seeds, harvesting, fixing wooden sheds, driving carts, chopping firewood, leading and feeding horses and loading sacks of potatoes. There seems little time to be merry, to dance or eat. The film shows the difficulties as well as dignity of living off the land. However, unlike Ermanno Ormi’s wonderful pastoral epic Tree of Clogs (1978) set in 19th century Italy, the more visceral aspects of living with animals subjected to harsh times is absent from Beauvois’s preference for a pared down look at life in blue smocks.
At the halfway mark – the film is over two hours long – the story takes on a romantic edge more melodrama than tragedy when Francine strikes up a romance with Georges while he’s on leave from the army. Hortense disapproves of the relationship and the trouble begins. From there the narrative gives us sexual liaisons, a soft-porn scene, false accusation and an expected pregnancy. The film is about renewal, after all, and a baby is the traditional way of telling us life goes on.
In the film’s coda, Francine, her hair now cropped into an au courant bob, sings on a rudimentary dais in a city café. As she ends her lament, and she and the musicians around her thank the diners for their sustained applause, her normally stoic expression breaks into a grin and her eyes light up. We smile with her. She is accepted.
The tale is told at a leisurely pace, the pace of an oxen pulling a plough. There are no fast edits to give a false measure of time.
This is a flawed documentary drama of pastoral life but not desperately so for the lives of all the women are absorbing. The visual images may be old-school familiar but they are elevated by heroic performances from all the women, ably supported in acting skills by the old men there as extras.
- Star Rating: Three-and-a-half stars
- Cast: Iris Bry, Nathalie Bay, Laura Smet, Nicolas Geraud
- Director: Xavier Beauvois
- Writer: Marie Julie-Maille, Xavier Bauvous
- Cinematographer: Caroline Champetier
- Composer: Michel Legrand
- Duration: 2 hours 18 minutes
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?