Xavier Beauvois takes an unusual approach to a war movie. Though he opens on a battlefield strewn with corpses during World War I, his film very rarely addresses the brute terror of warfare. Like Satyajit Ray’s memorable Distant Thunder, it mostly looks at the effect war has on those who are not at war, in this case the French farmers who continued to till the land during and after World War I. Not surprisingly, these farmers tended to be women, since the men were either fighting or already killed, and the special attention that women bring to agriculture is emphasized through action, word, and sensibility.
Hortense (Nathalie Baye) sees her two sons, Georges (Cyril Descours) and Constant (Nicolas Giraud) off to battle, leaving her to manage their farm with only her daughter, Solange (Laura Smet). Though the two women are healthy and able, there is only so much they can do by themselves, and so she takes on another young woman, Francine (Iris Bry), who is stoical and sturdy. Though there are tensions between the three women owing to personality differences and the like, Beauvois is more interested in the mechanics of running an enterprise, and how women approach it. Though he doesn’t explicitly find ways to compare the egalitarian, almost collective spirit these three women call forth to how a man would do it, the fact that men are fighting a useless war (the movie, it should be pointed out, is apolitical) while women are making food makes the difference plain. For most of the movie there is little dialogue, but rather scenes of painstaking labor photographed in detail. Still, this is not documentary filmmaking. It’s more like Beauvois wants to recreate the great tradition of French pastoral painting: his model is Millet, not Resnais. But there’s nothing romantic about the treatment. The Guardians is not a paean to the past, but rather a tribute to a timeless impulse and how that impulse governs human behavior for survival.
But there is drama, even melodrama, as Francine eventually falls in love with Georges when he is on leave. Hortense isn’t thrilled because, even though she is a farmer, she is also a landowner, and she views Francine’s station as being lower than her son’s. As the plot wavers between Lawrencian sexual intrigue and Zolan social naturalism the action remains fixated on the workaday world, as if human emotional life cannot compare to the staid splendor of the soil. Even as the “plot” enters the realm of tragedy, the world goes on. France, after all, survived the carnage (only to be plunged into it again a short time later), so we shouldn’t expect Francine and Georges to be ruined when their love cannot survive Hortense’s scrutiny. That’s a story for another, much more conventional film, where the world stops as the end credits roll. In The Guardians, the future is always in sight.
In French. Now playing in Tokyo at Iwanami Hall, Suidobashi (03-3262-5252).
The Guardians home page in Japanese.
photo (c) 2017 Les films du Worso – Rita Productions – KNM – Pathe Production – Orange Studio – France 3 Cinema – Versus production – RTS Radio Television Suisse