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The Guardians review - beautifully crafted drama | reviews, news & interviews

The Guardians review - beautifully crafted drama

The Guardians review - beautifully crafted drama

French release offers an artful look at farming during World War One

Period accuracy is limited to the asthetics

A slow tracking shot over the gassed corpses of soldiers, their masks having failed the ecstasy of fumbling, opens The Guardians. This French art house film would perhaps have been better served by the English title The Caretakers; it's closer to the original French meaning and would have made it less likely to be confused with a superhero movie. Set during the years when the Great War devastated France, the battle front only makes two dreamlike appearances in Xavier Beauvois’ meticulously crafted, slow-paced drama. Instead the focus is on a family farm in the Limousin and the women left behind to manage alone while the men are away.

Fierce matriarch Hortense (Nathalie Baye) has two sons in the trenches, gentle school teacher Constant and his younger more impulsive brother, Georges. Completing Hortense’s family is her daughter, Solange who is also missing her husband who spends most of the film as a prisoner of war. In a brilliant piece of casting, Solange is played by Laura Smet, Nathalie Baye’s child by the late rocker Johnny Hallyday. Watching Smet and Baye perform together, two sloe-eyed beauties working that mother-daughter dynamic, is fascinating. 

During the war, farm labourers are impossible to find, the only men left at home are old or infirm but the troops at the front need food and the fields still need ploughing. Hortense hires Francine, a teenage orphan in need of work and a place to live. Francine, played by newcomer Iris Bry, is a Rossetti vision of auburn hair and white skin, blessed with a lovely singing voice and gentle nature. Francine proves that being a natural beauty doesn’t get in the way of milking cows, harvesting wheat or cleaning out the pigs. Soon she has proved herself indispensable to Hortense. It looks like the orphan has found her permanent home when Francine also catches the eye of one of Hortense’s sons, home on leave. But then the narrative takes a distinctly Thomas Hardy turn. Solange’s sexual needs also invite her mother’s opprobrium and the script takes a distinctly feminist stance, in defiance of the moral norms of the era. It might be uplifting, but it makes The Guardians, otherwise obsessed with period accuracy, teeter on the anachronistic. The GuardiansAdapted from an 1924 novel by Ernest Pérochon, director Xavier Beauvois escorts us through the seasons and the years 1915 to 1920. The film meticulously details the changing face of agriculture and society in France. Like his award-winning Cistercian terrorism drama Of Gods and Men, Beauvoir collaborates with veteran cinematographer Caroline Champetier. Her deployment of natural light and painterly tableaux in the wheat fields references both van Gogh and Millet. Sometimes the muted palette of browns and faded blues becomes a little drab and clichéd, like an overused "artistic" Instagram filter. There’s the whiff too of a great deal of energy being spent by the production team ensuring period authenticity; at times I found myself remembering that Stella Artois advert where the prodigal son is welcomed home from the war by his bartender père with a cold beer

Music and dialogue are used sparingly which gives a realist touch -  churning butter and shaping it in ornate wooden moulds, the shocking advent of combine harvesters could all be educational extracts from a drama-doc about rural life. There’s a misty nostalgia too for pre-industrial technology, despite the acknowledgement of the hard physical labour required. But no matter the gruelling drudgery, we are are still watching a trio of classy French actresses - realism stops short of giving them lank hair, less than perfect teeth or unflattering costumes. Intermingling with the stars, there’s some amateur actors in the shape of classroom and congregation members while Hortense’s frail father is played convincingly by Gilbert Bonneau, a farmer making his on-screen acting debut at the age of 79. If The Guardians is just a touch too beautiful, slow and artful to be as harrowing and convincing as Beauvois’ previous films, it will still go down well with audiences in love with la France profonde and historic drama.

@saskiabaron

No matter the gruelling drudgery, we are are still watching a trio of classy French actresses

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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