The Guardians

August 29, 2018 § Leave a comment

Nathalie Baye’s face in The Guardians is oddly compelling. In it I kept seeing the face of the young woman who starred in films by Godard and Truffaut, as if it were aged artificially. Despite the wrinkles, it looked smoothed, and the eyes were still young, a sparkling blue. Baye is now 70, with a busy career behind her, and her energy here, in a role that must have been physically demanding besides the rest, suggests an old woman with a young one alive inside her, the one sweet, the other tough – but which way round?
As Hortense Sandrail, the matriarch of a well-to-do peasant family, her two sons and her son-in-law both at the front, she has been left to run the farm along with her daughter Solange (Baye’s real-life daughter, Laura Smet), the only remaining male her older brother, played by 78-year-old Gilbert Bonneau, a non-actor persuaded to combine the role with looking after his dozen or so cows in a local village. It’s a small part but it brings added value in the gnarled authenticity that needed no rehearsing and stands in marked contrast to the worldly-wise Hortense. The year is 1915.
Xavier Beauvois’ film seems at first like an anniversary homage, with a certain documentary intent, to the women who farmed the land as men fought and died during the First World War. This is France, and France as a national entity, for there’s no indication of any specific region. Instead the camera recreates a bucolic world, season by season, of female agricultural labour in all its aspects, slowing it down to the particulars with languid tracking shots. Women plough with oxen and harvest with scythes in hand, mechanisation still to come.
The effect is painterly, faintly evoking Millet (The Winnower, The Sower, The Gleaners etc.), and the Impressionists, but forsaking any attempt at realism, so that when they clean out a barn, spread manure on the fields, or struggle to change a mucky cartwheel the women’s fetching pinafores and skirts stay impeccably laundered, unsullied by any trace of dirt. It reminded me of Polanski’s Tess (1980), based on Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, a memory of over-prettification.
Little by little this nostalgic idealisation diminishes. Grime becomes discernible as the film shifts firmly into narrative mode. The labour shortage has compelled Hortense to employ Francine, a young woman who has grown up in an orphanage, as labourer and maid of all work. She is sturdy and tireless, uncomplaining, honest and welcomed by the family with an appreciative warmth that approaches inclusion. And she sings as she works. From the first we realise that something will change because of her.
One by one, the men return on leave: Constant, a schoolteacher, Clovis, Solange’s husband, and Georges, Hortense’s younger son. With them they bring their choked-down misery, their anger and their nightmares. There are different views of the Bosches: the hatred the children have been taught in the classroom in Constant’s absence and now recite to him; Clovis’s fierce observation that ‘they are like us, workers, peasants…’; Georges, more taciturn, furtive in his courtship of the openhearted Francine, and leaving us in doubt of how honourable it is. There’s a telling scene on the eve of his departure, when he expresses his love in turn to everyone around the table, but fails to mention her. Cowardly retreat, or mere discretion?
The men are deferred to, the women, as temporary custodians, seeking their approval for changes they’ve made and plans to invest in machinery that will lighten the work and the need for day labourers. A combine harvester arrives, and, by the war’s end, a tractor, Solange at the wheel (both, we notice, foreign imports). Greater change looms and they all have a sense of it.
Meanwhile, the family is under strain, touched by loss and jealousies, both within and from outside. Some American soldiers help out on the farm as they wait to be sent to the front, their behaviour arrogant and crass. An ambiguous moment gives Hortense a pretext for dispelling rumours that hurt the family’s reputation. She saves it, cruelly, at Francine’s expense.
Francine finds kindness elsewhere, but ultimately must rely on her own resources, which prove to be considerable. Her first shelter is with a woman, a charcoal burner, struggling on her own with a young child. It’s a relief when the film veers away from what has threatened to be a family saga.
War for the most part had brought about a truce in age-old family conflict over land and the spoils of inheritance. Renewed quarrels see Hortense rejoice to have her men back to how they were before. Her cruelty towards Francine makes her a monster, but one for whom the director wants to elicit not just our admiration but our sympathy for her suffering, her recognition of what she loses. Yet even given the chance to reverse her betrayal, she doesn’t relent.
In The Guardians we’re a very long way from the harsh and ruthless world of the peasantry to be found in Zola, and before him Balzac. It was still hard to be convinced by the relative absence of hypocrisy in the village, or the Catholic moralism that would surely have showed its face, suggesting again a nostalgia for a France that never was.
I saw much to enjoy in this film: good acting, luminous photography, a subtle use of colour. There is a heartrending moment when Constant takes the road of return to duty, walking away from the farm and us, until his sky blue uniform is swallowed completely by a mist that’s another lighter blue. Here and elsewhere I surmised borrowings from the films of Jean Renoir. But the mood overall is elegiac while misaligned with past realities.
There is compensation: The Guardians is lifted in the end by Francine’s spirit and strength of character. She is wonderfully played by Iris Bry, whose first film this is. The final scene is terrific, with Francine on stage, now emerged from her chrysalis, clothed in the brilliance of a modern woman. It reminds me of the opening scene in Sebastiano Leto’s A Fantastic Woman: likewise a singer accompanied by musicians, her voice full of joyous defiance.

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