A different version of “The Sower,” Marine Francen’s poised and petite freshman feature, might have included the extended, rather remarkable story behind its literary source. Aged 84, former village schoolteacher Violette Ailhaud wrote her autobiographical short story “L’homme semence” in 1919, passing it to an attorney with clear instructions that it be given to her eldest female descendant in 1952, a full century after the events it documents; a curious, bittersweet tale of lost innocence and sexual conspiracy in a community of women, it remained in the family for half a century before being published, to steadily building acclaim, in 2006. Some manner of film adaptation was inevitable. Francen’s, however, honors Ailhaud by telling only the story she wrote, albeit with subtly modernized language and aesthetics, underlining its enduringly provocative gender politics in the process.
The resulting film is so delicately wrought and exquisitely visualized that the harsher, eerier details of Ailhaud’s account stand out all the more strikingly, like a shot of vinegar in a pristine crème caramel. Both moving on its own terms and an invigorating conversation-starter, “The Sower” has enjoyed a successful run of festival exposure and international sales since emerging victorious in the San Sebastian fest’s competitive New Directors strand, though this serenely accomplished debut has arguably received less than its due on the French awards circuit. That distributors in the U.S. and across Europe stepped forward isn’t surprising for a film that, despite its low star wattage, can alluringly be pitched to arthouse audiences as a cross between Xavier Beauvois’ “The Guardians” and Sofia Coppola’s pastelized spin on “The Beguiled” — though even with those reference points in place, it’s a bracing, unusual creation.
With crisp, stark sound design and tight, disorienting deployment of the Academy ratio, the opening minutes of “The Sower” plunge us directly into the violent panic of President Louis-Napoléon’s 1851 coup d’état, as brutal bands of soldiers on horseback tore through rural settlements to round up Republican sympathizers — killing some and deporting others. In the wake of one such raid, the remote hilltop village that is home to young, wide-eyed Violette (Pauline Burlet) is entirely stripped of its menfolk, leaving its shellshocked women to work the land themselves and survive on what it yields. With not another human soul passing through for months on end, it’s an isolated, uncertain existence — leading to a shared erotic fantasy, as the exhausted, frustrated women imagine keeping, seducing and sharing the first man that comes along.
As if by magic, like a pastoral-realist twist on Updike’s “The Witches of Eastwick,” beardily sexy blacksmith Jean (Alban Lenoir) duly emerges from the wilderness, offering to help with the harvest in return for room, board and other favors he hasn’t yet signed off on. Virginal Violette is assigned to make him welcome, essentially buttering up the tall dark stranger for the entire sisterhood — one that, in times of hardship and male absence, has developed its own feminist laws. Though the tone is predominantly solemn and stoic, there’s a quiet streak of acrid wit running through Francen’s vision of extreme sexual socialism, a one-for-all-and-all-for-one setup that is rather inconveniently disrupted when Violette and Jean fall deeply and tenderly in love.
“The Sower” thus extracts a traditional star-crossed romance from distinctly strange, circuitous circumstances. Individual and collective desires clash in a story that flips and blurs the power dynamics we expect from studies of abuse and exploitation between men and women, though Francen’s reserved direction and sparely constructed screenplay (co-written with Jacqueline Surchat and Jacques Fieschi) resist the more lurid pull of the material — at slight cost to dramatic tension in a denouement that keeps multiple conflicts at a civil simmer. Though Lenoir and the winning Burlet (making good on her youthful promise in “La Vie en Rose” and “The Past”) make an appealing pair of still-waters lovers, the film’s most compelling passages focus on escalating tensions between the women as they eke out a living with, as those mourning the loss of their men complain, not much to live for.
Cinematographer Alain Duplantier captures their daily grind in one exactingly composed, softly lit frame after another, permitting muted shafts of sunlight to warm the stony textures of Mathieu Menut’s severe production design, and practically gilding the surrounding wheat fields in ripe, magic-hour glow. If the film risks seeming a shade too beautiful for Ailhaut’s mostly tough-minded tale, that’s not by accident. In tweaking the source’s none-too-subtle title, Francen has effectively named her film for Jean-Francois Millet’s famous 1850 painting “The Sower,” one of several Realist works of the period that aroused controversy in the Parisian art scene for their elegant, ennobling treatment of poverty-stricken rural subjects. Francen’s own painterly film gives its abandoned, beleaguered women of the soil the same graceful treatment.