VOD film review: The Guardians
Matthew Turner | On 17, Aug 2018
Director: Xavier Beauvois
Cast: Nathalie Baye, Laura Smet, Iris Bry
Watch The Guardians online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema
Based on the 1924 novel by Ernest Pérochon, The Guardians tells the story of the French land girls, women who kept farms in production during World War I. Beautifully directed by Xavier Beauvois, it’s an impressively detailed, slow-burning drama full of heartbreak and melancholy.
Beginning in 1915, the film stars Nathalie Baye as Madame Hortense, who’s been left in charge of running the Paridier farm in rural France, following the death of her husband. With her sons away fighting at the front, Hortense needs an extra hand to help her daughter, Solange (Baye’s real-life daughter, Laura Smet), take care of the farm, so she enlists local girl Francine (newcomer Iris Bry), who works tirelessly, with a cheerful attitude and soon comes to feel like one of the family.
However, when Hortense’s handsome son, George (Cyril Descours), returns from the front, he’s instantly smitten with Francine, which causes friction with family friend Marguerite (Mathilde Viseux), who had regarded herself as betrothed to him. Then, the Americans arrive, putting le chat well and truly among les pigeons.
A straight summary of the plot makes the film sound rather melodramatic, but that’s not really the case. Instead, Beauvois’ direction draws you in with a compelling, slow-burning intensity, taking pains to establish the day-to-day nature of the women’s shared workload in exquisite detail (tilling the fields, the churning of butter, the making of charcoal, etc), before the men arrive and, frankly, mess everything up.
There are other themes and issues at play within the film, not least the effect of the war on the returning men, whether that’s shell-shock or angry disillusionment. The latter is the case for Solange’s husband, Clovis (Olivier Rabourdin), a teacher who’s found humanity in the Germans he’s been fighting and is unsettled to return to a classroom full of children greeting him with a derogatory song about “Les Boches” (the Krauts).
Beauvois’ direction is exceptional throughout, creating a vivid sense of time and place and drawing compelling performances from his accomplished cast. Bry is particularly impressive as Francine, displaying a charisma that’s extremely touching, while veteran actress Baye is terrific, packing tiny gestures and looks with powerful emotion, most notably in the inevitable scenes where official letters arrive from the front.
On top of that, the film looks gorgeous throughout, with cinematographer Caroline Champetier’s painterly compositions deliberately echoing the work of Jean-François Millet, focusing on the nature of the work and giving the film a palpable pastoral earthiness. There’s very little score, to speak of (adding to the documentary-like realism), but composer Michel Legrand does include a number of appropriate flute-led pieces and the film makes great use of Francine’s singing voice, especially in the wonderful closing scene. If that sort of thing flottes your bateau, there’s a bonus track from Bry that plays over the closing credits.
The Guardians is available now in cinemas and on-demand.