×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘The Guardians’

'Of Gods and Men' director Xavier Beauvois recounts a seldom-told chapter of WWI history concerning the role women played on the home front.

Director:
Xavier Beauvois
With:
Nathalie Baye, Laura Smet, Iris Bry
Release Date:
May 4, 2018

Rated R  2 hours 14 minutes

Official Site: https://www.musicboxfilms.com/the-guardians-movies-165.php

How many films about World War I have omitted female characters, or else relegated them to the margins, reduced to a face in a worn photograph or the scrawl in a tattered love letter? An austere corrective to more than a century of under-representation, “The Guardians” tells the other side of the story, focusing on the home front and the women — characters so often defined in relation to male soldiers, as mothers, wives, girlfriends, and children — who shouldered the burden of keeping French farms running while the men were away.

Inspired by prize-winning French author Ernest Pérochon’s 1924 novel, director Xavier Beauvois’ emotionally devastating adaptation — which some may find as arduous as the wartime chapter it depicts — dispenses with a fair amount of the suffering to be found in the book, forgoing the contemporary tendency toward gritty, handheld realism in favor of a more timeless, almost painterly aesthetic. Set in the Limousin region of France, the decidedly unmanipulative drama features virtually no score (despite a music credit to Michel Legrand) or invasive camera tricks, relying mainly on a fine cast and the work of DP Caroline Champetier, whose stately widescreen compositions supply historically accurate tableaux that have largely been missing from the canonical visual record of that era.

The opening image, following an almost hallucinatory view of fallen soldiers in gas masks, is that of actress Nathalie Baye, guiding a horse-drawn plow through thick mud. It’s a startling sight, radically different from the liberated modern roles in which Baye previously appeared (in films like “Le petit lieutenant” and “Venus Beauty Institute”), but more important, a sharp contrast with the bucolic picture of French farm life most people hold in their heads — one in which stout men do such work seated atop tractors on sunny days.

Beneath a wiry gray wig and wardrobe of coarse, handmade clothes, Baye projects a spirit of duty-bound diligence as Hortense, the hardy matriarch of a traditional country farm at a time before heavy machinery made such labor less physically demanding (later, in a scene straight out of a Jean-François Millet painting, women cut the wheat by hand). Because the farm is too much for Hortense and distressed daughter Solange (played by Baye’s real-life daughter, Laura Smet) to manage on their own, Hortense hires a 20-year-old orphan named Francine (Iris Bry) to pitch in.

Compared with Solange, a restless wildflower who doesn’t know what to do with the time spent apart from her husband (one moment she behaves like a woman in mourning, the next she is caught flirting with the G.I.s who’ve set up camp nearby), Francine keeps a low profile. She tends to the animals, mends clothes, and pulls her weight without complaint. She may as well be invisible, which makes her more surprised than anyone when Hortense’s son Clovis (Oliver Rabourdin) takes notice of her while home on leave — which only serves to complicate the dynamic between the women, since Francine is not of their class. It helps the film’s cause that Bry has never acted on-screen before, allowing audiences to discover the young woman in the role — and indeed, she seems to blossom before our eyes as tragedy lends dimension to her character.

Assuming a somewhat tedious yet period-appropriate sense of pace, “The Guardians” spans nearly five years from 1915-20 — a time when sentiments were expressed at length, and by letter, before television and mass media penetrated rural homes, when daylight hours were spent either in work or in worship (Beauvois depicts the church as a place of somber solidarity with the other townfolk). Presented with the slow-motion rhythm of life on a farm, Beauvois and editor-co-writer Marie-Julie Maille do a remarkable job of compression, depicting the demanding routine without insisting on re-creating it in real time, the way directors like Béla Tarr or Chantal Akerman might have.

Despite being helmed by a man, “The Guardians” should also be viewed as a female-driven achievement, representing the culmination of a long, personal journey for risk-taking French producer Sylvie Pialat (“Stranger by the Lake,” “Our Children”). Together with the actress-driven ensemble and woman cinematographer, Pialat has honored an entire category of war heroes whose stories are seldom told. Where America has Rosie the Riveter as its poster girl for the women who pitched in during WW2, France can now point to “The Guardians” with pride.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'The Guardians'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 11, 2017. (Also in San Francisco, COLCOA film festivals.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 134 MIN.

Production: (France-Switzerland) A Music Box Films (in U.S.), Pathé/Orange Studio (in France) release of a Les Films du Worso presentation of a Les films du Worso, Pathé, France 3 Cinema, Versus Prods., Rita Prods., Orange Studio, KNM, RTS Radio Télévision Suisse production, with the participation of Canal Plus, Ciné Plus, France Télévisions, in association with Cofinova 13, Soficinéma 13, Indéfilms 5, Cinéfeel 3. Producers: Sylvie Pialat, Benoît Quainon. Co-producers: Pauline Gygax, Max Karli.

Crew: Director: Xavier Beauvois. Screenplay: Beauvois, Frédérique Moreau, Marie-Julie Maille, based on the novel by Ernest Pérochon. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Caroline Champetier. Editor: Maille. Music: Michel Legrand.

With: Nathalie Baye, Laura Smet, Iris Bry

, Cyril Descours, Gilbert Bonneau, Olivier Rabourdin, Nicolas Giraud, Mathilde Viseux-Ely.

More Film

  • Rey (Daisy Ridley) in STAR WARS:

    Disney and Tencent to Put Out New Chinese ‘Star Wars’ Story

    Disney and China’s biggest online publisher, Tencent’s China Literature, have teamed up to develop a new Chinese “Star Wars” online novel and release 40 older e-books in Chinese for the first time. In an attempt to cultivate grass-roots enthusiasm for a franchise that has not yet managed to find a strong foothold in the world’s [...]

  • A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon

    Film Review: 'A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon'

    No asteroids are hurtling toward Earth in “A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon,” though a flying frozen pizza does softly slice the top off an elderly shopper’s hairdo: That’s roughly the level of quirky peril we’re talking about in the latest outing from Aardman Animations, and as usual, the British stop-motion masters cheerfully prove that [...]

  • Slam

    Film Review: ‘Slam’

    The disappearance of a fearless female Palestinian-Australian slam poet triggers suspense and powerful social and political commentary in “Slam,” an outstanding slow-burn thriller by expat Indian filmmaker Partho Sen-Gupta (“Sunrise”). Starring Palestinian actor Adam Bakri (“Omar,” “Official Secrets”) as the missing woman’s conflicted brother, and leading Aussie performer Rachael Blake as a troubled cop, Opening [...]

  • Igo Kantor

    Igo Kantor, Producer and Post-Production Executive, Dies at 89

    Igo Kantor, whose Hollywood career took him from Howard Hughes’ projection room to supervising post-production on “Easy Rider” and producing B-movies like “Kingdom of the Spiders” and “Mutant,” died Oct. 15. He was 89. Kantor, who was born in Vienna and raised in Lisbon, met “Dillinger” director Max Nosseck on the ship to New York. [...]

  • The Lion King

    Average Movie Ticket Price Falls 4% in Third Quarter of 2019

    Average ticket prices for the third quarter have dropped 4% to $8.93, down from Q2’s $9.26, the National Association of Theatre Owners announced today. However, compared with the third quarter of 2018, ticket price has risen 1.1% from $8.83. The summer box office is down 2.13% from 2018, though the third quarter box office is [...]

  • Tilda Swinton to Preside Over The

    Tilda Swinton to Preside Over Marrakech Film Festival

    Tilda Swinton, the iconoclastic British actress and producer, is set to preside over the 18th edition of the Marrakech International Film Festival, succeeding to American director James Gray. Swinton, who won an Oscar and a BAFTA award for best supporting actress for “Michael Clayton,” has been leading an eclectic acting career. She has collaborated with [...]

  • The King Netflix

    Middleburg Film Festival Brings Hollywood to Virginia

    For the last seven years, audiences have flocked to the Middleburg Film Festival. Running October 17th – 21st, and situated in the wine-country hills of historic Middleburg, Virg., the festival usually highlights some of the year’s buzziest titles, and 2019 is no exception. “We’re a smaller festival with fewer overall screenings than other events, so we [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content