Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 17, 2018 3:25 pm 
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The Great War at home, on a French farm

Xavier Beauvois is an important French director. See his shattering 2005 Le petit lieutenant, a cop flick that's infinitely more. Or his noble, troubling 2010 Cannes-Palme-d'Or-winning Of Gods and Men, about monks threatened with extinction in North Africa. And Beauvois is still significant as an actor: you will encounter him in Claire Denis' latest Let the Sunshine in in a cameo role that, typically, acquires considerable depth. Beauvois' new directorial effort, The Guardians, is a traditional historical film about WWI drawn from a 1924 novel by Ernest Perochon, freely adapted, then shot more freely still - but not without due respect for cinematic traditions. The material itself cannot help but make us keenly aware of them.

The fresh touch is, as the French version of the title, Les Gardiennes, will tell you, that it's wholly from the point of view of the women left at home during the Great War to tend the farm and deal with heavy losses as their men fight "Les Boches" (French equivalent of "the Jerries") at the front, and often do not return. The film is old-fashioned, lively, free, emotional, yet a little too understated - at first, anyway - and a little long. But this is a picture of sexual and class injustices, and a young woman from nowhere who triumphs over them to become a free spirit of the TWenties.

The screen is dominated by two faces, maybe three. First is the dour gray one of Hortense (the splendid Nathalie Baye, central to Le petit lieutenant, in charge of the Paridier farm now, with her eldest son at the front. Through the local town organization she hires a young, vigorous, fresh-faced woman who grew up in an orphanage, Francine (Iris Bry, a promising newcomer). Present also is Hortense's daughter, Solange, whose husband Clovis (Olivier Rabourdin), the responsible man of the farm, is at the front. Solange is played by Laura Smet, Natalie Baye's real-life daughter by the late lamented Johnny Johnny Hallyday, and the time they've been together in a feature film.

Beauvois's interests in this film are several. One is the silences. And there are notable moments when people just stare at each other, as those on the farm may do. Another is the seasons, and the harvests. Viewers attending the New York Rendez-View with French Cinema may be put in mind of another film of the series, Marine Francen's The Sower/Le semeur, where the scythe-wielding and even the women's clothes, the way they wear their shawls tucked into their waists, are very similar, even though Francen's story takes place in 1852. Beauvois' film gives even more time to lengthy scenes of the women doing various sorts of farm work, especially the harvesting. The Great War however is a time of innovation, and with it comes modern harvesting equipment, and Beaufois is attentive to showing this, as the story moves from 1915 through the First World War and to the dawn of the Twenties.

Equally or more important in human terms are the returns of the men, and their failures to return. The big change comes during the time on leave of Hortense's vibrant young son Georges (Cyril Descours). Francine is shy with him but he is interested and - importantly - she can read and write and they agree to exchange letters, which become love letters. The relationship turns physical on another leave for Georges.

But then there are the Americans, a group of uniformly handsome young soldiers in tan casual uniforms who seem to be hanging around waiting for an assignment, with plenty of time and money and testosterone. It is their interest in the local women and especially Francine that leads to trouble and injustice for they young woman that covers Solange's real betrayal with one of them, while Francine becomes pregnant with Georges' child but she is cast out by the family, wronged by Georges and Hortense.

Somebody comes back alive, somebody doesn't. The sorrow Hortense experiences may warp her. But there are twists that seem novelistic at best, while perhaps toward the end only the singing of Iris Bry, showing FRancine turning into a free spirit in a new culture of changing times, may stand out, and provide viewers with positive memories of what ma feel a bit manipulative as the hitherto taciturn narrative takes a melodramatic turn.

Debuted at Toronto Sept 2016, also shown at Tokyo, London and Mar del Plata. It opened in cinemas in France 6 Dec. 2017 (AlloCiné press rating a very so-so 3.4). Screened for this review at the Unifrance-Film Society of Lincoln Center New York series, Rendez-View with French Cinema, where it was shown 16 Mar. 2018, with a Q&A featuring Xavier Beauvois, speaking volubly with Kent Jones and the audience through an interpreter and tippling from a flask labeled "Medicine."

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