Xavier Beauvois’s marvelous new film, “The Guardians,” which takes place in France over five years beginning in 1915, is set almost entirely on a family-owned farm at a time when the men were absent except for brief leaves from the World War I killing fields. The summer countryside has a honeyed pastoralism that belies the toil it takes to work the land.
Hortense (Nathalie Baye), the family’s matriarch, has a son-in-law in the war, Clovis (Olivier Rabourdin), who is married to Hortense’s daughter, Solange (Laura Smet, Baye’s real-life daughter), and who ran the farm before the war. Also on the front lines are Hortense’s two sons, Constant (Nicolas Giraud), a schoolteacher, and Georges (Cyril Descours), a dandyish type who, like the other men, is battling shell shock. To help with the harvesting, Hortense hires a pious, dutiful 20-year-old orphan, Francine (Iris Bry), who soon proves to be as hardy as any male farmhand ever was. When Georges returns on leave, the romantic attraction between them, tentative at first, becomes overwhelming. Their exchanged love letters, while Georges is in battle, uphold them both.
Beauvois, who co-wrote the screenplay with Frédérique Moreau and Marie-Julie Maille based on a 1924 novel by Ernest Pérochon, presents the dailiness of farm life through its seasons with an unhurried grace. (The film runs 138 minutes.) Although some of the imagery, beautifully captured by cinematographer Caroline Champetier, derives directly from the paintings of Jean-François Millet and the work of such filmmakers as Marcel Pagnol and Jean Renoir, I never felt as if he was aestheticizing the arduousness of the life put before us.
Neither did I feel that he was fashioning a feminist tract. The women who labor in the wheat fields do not see themselves as avatars of empowerment, and Beauvois does not film them that way. The movie seems to be saying this is what people do to survive.
But survival on the farm takes many forms. Francine proves so indispensable that she is hired year-round, and she basks in finally being part of a family.
But Hortense is sharply aware of Francine’s peasant-orphan origins and never really regards her as more than a strong worker (which is why Francine and Georges hide their romance). The tragedy of Francine’s life is that she feels intensely drawn to a family that, because of ingrained prejudice, can never accept her as one of their own. Even Georges’s allegiance to her is fated to waver.
But Francine is no simple sufferer. The same fortitude that worked for her on the farm becomes her sustenance away from it. The smile she flashes at the end is as satisfying a look of triumph as I can recall in a movie.
Baye is mostly associated with decorous roles, but in this film, she digs deep into Hortense’s hard-bitten resolve and, even more impressive, makes this flinty, unyielding woman a figure of no small compassion. The red-headed Bry, in her first film role, has the kind of fresh-faced purity that can’t be faked.
These two women represent opposite sides of the same coin: Their rock-solid steadfastness affirms them.
Beauvois, best known for the impressive 2010 film “Of Gods and Men,” about Trappist monks in embattled Algeria, has a seismic sensitivity to the ordeals faced by enclosed communities in wartime. He periodically introduces woe-faced village messengers who bring back news of the recent fallen, and their presence each time is like a death knell. But Beauvois has also the grace to perceive the humanity in all the combatants. When Clovis, on weary leave with his family, tells the stunned assemblage that “the Germans are people like us,” his words resonate far beyond the confines of this film.
Rated R for some violence and sexuality.