The Guardians (Les gardiennes) Review
The last time I saw Xavier Beauvois he was being thoroughly beastly to Juliette Binoche, as boorish banker Vincent, in Claire Denis’s idiosyncratic rom-com, Let The Sunshine In. Playing an unreconstructed bastard, he was clearly having the time of his life. The French filmmaker-cum-actor is back behind the camera as director and co-writer here, though, for a slow but sumptuous WWII drama that focuses on and celebrates the women (the titular Guardians) who remained at home, working the land in rural France, as their husbands, sons and lovers went off to fight. The fact their sisterly idyll descends into rancour would probably please misogynist oaf Vincent enormously.
With her two sons and son-in-law at war, no-nonsense matriarch Hortense (Nathalie Baye) runs the Paridier farm, along with daughter Solange (Laura Smet). She brings in working-class hard-grafter Francine (Iris Bry) to help and the three women forge a bond of friendship and trust as the war years roll by. The bloody conflict seems a world away from the painstakingly ploughed fields and azure skies of a French summer. Of course, it can’t possibly last, and soon the Great War has left an ugly welt on the women’s lives while their relationships with each other grow ever more fractious.
The two things you notice immediately about The Guardians is its languid pace and gorgeous, painterly cinematography. The latter comes courtesy of Caroline Champetier, who has worked previously with Beauvois on the likes of The Price Of Fame (2014) and Of Gods And Men (2010), and also with Leos Carax on the extraordinary Holy Motors. You can’t really go wrong with rural France in summertime as the visual backdrop to your film but, still, veteran Champetier gives us so many mouth-watering images to cherish it would take longer than the film’s 2hr 18min running time to list them all.
Beauvois returns again and again to the punishing physical labour these women undertook daily – sowing, ploughing, threshing, driving cattle, stuffing mountains of potatoes into sacks – and yet even these deeply unlovely pastimes are made to look like moments captured in a Monet masterpiece by veteran DOP Champetier and her camera.
The film is deliberately paced, yes, but necessarily so, as you become drawn into the detail of this family’s rhythms and relationships. During the first half, you could be forgiven for forgetting The Guardians is a war film because the conflict feels so far removed from what is up there on screen. Peace, quiet, sun, livestock and wheat – so much wheat. Such reveries end only when one or other of the men returns from the front and, even then, they are seen strolling down a misty lane to the Paridier as if on their way back from the shops.
We witness nothing of the two sons, Georges (Cyril Descours) and Constant (Nicolas Giraud), or Solange’s husband, Clovis (Olivier Rabourdin), at the sharp end of battle and, initially, only the latter’s constant boozing and philosophising about the futility of it all offer any sort of negative perspective. Ominous foreshadowing comes from elsewhere – a pile of gas-masked soldiers’ corpses right at the very beginning and the names of local men killed in the fighting read aloud at a gloomy church service.
Everything changes, abruptly and brutally, about halfway through, when the war claims two members of our cast, albeit in different ways. The farm’s – and film’s – bucolic atmosphere dissipates in an instant and the die is cast for The Guardians’ second half. Like a particularly rampant virus, the conflict soon fully infects these characters; their emotions, relationships and judgements. Nothing is the same again, no one remains untouched by it.
There is heartbreak and not just because of a character’s demise, but also because of Hortense’s reaction to it. She adopts a sort of ‘siege mentality’ in which defending her farm’s future and family’s honour become her only goals. She circles the wagons and any sense of female solidarity is thrown out the window as Francine is sacrificed when Solange’s relationship with a US soldier becomes the focus of local gossip. Francine calls Hortense a “monster” in the film’s best scene and suddenly there’s another sort of war happening right there in the family’s midst, one tinged with notions of class and status.
The central characters – Hortense and Francine – are thoroughly captivating and played to perfection by veteran Baye and debutant Bry. But others come and go to the point where you need a scorecard at times to keep track of them. At first, I found it difficult to tell Georges and Constant apart. They are brothers so look alike, but neither of the men are especially distinctive nor even well-drawn. Neither is Marguerite (Mathilde Viseux-Ely), who battles for Georges’s affections in the film. In fact, she’s little more than a plot device and so forgettable that when she turns up after being off-screen for a while, I’d completely forgotten who she was.
There’s something old fashioned and, despite its moments of darkness, almost cosy about The Guardians, which is based on Ernest Pérochon’s 1924 novel. It feels like the sort of quality drama that would play out in three or four parts on Sunday evenings on BBC1. Richly textured and stubbornly traditional, it explores class, grief, family and sisterhood in a manner both elegant and affecting.
The Guardians is released in the UK on Friday (17th August)