Best-known for Of Gods And Men, a film about a group of lonely men in a monastery at a time of political conflict, Xavier Beauvois is back with The Guardians, a film about a group of lonely women on a farm at a time of political conflict.
Jokes about self-plagiarism aside, The Guardians is a subtle, beautifully made and quietly feminist work about the fortitude of women during wartime. Set on the Sandrail family farm during the First World War, we are initiated into the clan with the arrival of Francine (Iris Bry), an assiduous orphan of few words who quickly endears herself to matriarch Hortense (Nathalie Baye) with her hard work during the harvest period.
Accompanying her as deputy on the farm is Hortense’s daughter-in-law Solange (played by Baye’s real life daughter Laura Smet), whose husband Clovis – along with his younger brothers Georges (Cyril Descours) and Constant (Nicolas Giraud) – is away at the front. Henri (Gilbert Bonneau), Hortense’s elderly, self-effacing husband, is the only man left on the estate.
Left to their own devices, the women set about ensuring that none of the harvest’s precious bounty goes to waste. Beauvois and regular cinematographer Caroline Champetier do a wonderful job at capturing the essence of agricultural life, with hypnotically filmed sequences of wheat cutting and shots of frost-covered morning fields contrasting the reassuring regularity of the seasons and natural growth with the extreme vagaries of geopolitics.
Yet the outside world cannot resist intruding through the alternating visits of the two brothers plus Hortense’s husband and, later, American soldiers making their late entry into the war. It is the men who bring drama to the story, and ultimately, the collapse of the delicate harmony established between Hortense, Solange and Francine. Ironically, despite her independent mindedness, it is Hortense’s traditional concerns about female modesty – themselves imposed by a male-dominated society – that lead her to make the false accusations which destroy a blossoming relationship.
But while Beauvois’ choice of subject matter and themes is irreproachable, with the arrival of romance on the scene he is unable to steer The Guardians away from soap operatic melodrama. The juvenile bickering between Marguerite and Francine over Georges detracts from the composed gravity of the rest of the film, and undermines its progressive message by defining both women through the man they desire.
Particularly mishandled is a lovemaking scene that, while meant to be passionately climatic, is instead unbearably cringeworthy thanks to an over-the-top score and hackneyed camera work. A separate PTSD-esque dream sequence suffers from similar directorial clunkiness. These unfortunate faults aside, The Guardians is nonetheless an emotionally complex and thoughtful exploration of the role the World Wars played in empowering women, arguably laying the seeds for the liberation movements that came to fruition decades later.
Maximilian Von Thun | @M3Yoshioka