There are moments in The Guardians when you can imagine you’re in the wrong art form. Time stills, the frame all but freezes, and the film seems to have taken a left turn into an exhibition of fetching French landscapes and interiors from the early 20th century. The camera hovers over the harrowed earth, admires the sturdy sunlit front of a farmhouse, lingers thoughtfully on a face. The running time of 138 minutes could easily have been slashed to 100 by a heartless editor. But this is un film de Xavier Beauvois, a specialist in painterly exactitude.
The writer-director’s greatest success came in 2010 with Of Gods and Men. This, too, had some of the trappings of a major box-office turn-off. It was set in a tormented Cistercian monastery in North Africa, from which it derived its muted aesthetic tone and extremely careful pace. And yet it was as gripping as it was heart-rending and won sundry awards in France and beyond. Many of the same virtues are at play in The Guardians, right down to the table scenes (no one shoots the breaking of bread like Beauvois).
In the background is the first world war, evoked in an opening shot of gas-masked bodies slumped among fallen leaves. Thereafter we are spirited to a farm. On a flat, wintry expanse in 1915 the women of the Sandrail family till the land in the absence of able-bodied men — two sons and a son-in-law. The following year (the years, discreetly captioned, come and go until we finish up in 1920), one of those sons reappears in uniform brandishing a medal, but soon heads back to the front whence, it is implied with a heavy heart, he will never return. The presiding matriarch Hortense (Natalie Baye) has only her daughter Solange (Laura Smet, Baye’s actual daughter with Johnny Hallyday) to rely on. So she hires a young orphan woman Francine (Iris Bry), who resourcefully falls in with the routine of milking, harvesting and stuffing freshly dug potatoes in sacks. These women are the eponymous caretakers of the life-giving land, which elsewhere in France has become a mass grave.
The slow agrarian rhythms don’t call for much in the way of speech. When people do talk, the prevailing topic is the war. Schoolchildren chant nationalist slogans about the evil Boche. When Solange’s husband Clovis (Olivier Rabourdin) returns on leave he remonstrates that ‘the Germans are just like us’. It is the American soldiers billeted nearby who seem the real aliens, with their roving hands, immoderate drinking and clumsy threshing technique. News from the front arrives parsimoniously. ‘C’est qui?’ says Hortense, knowing the worst as soon as a long-faced harbinger of death crosses the threshold.
Amid the doom Francine is a shy, handsome life-force, blissfully fulfilled leading the oxen or mastering the fancy new combine. Naturally, she catches the eye of Georges Sandrail (Cyril Descours) when he, too, returns on leave. Their love is beautifully consummated by a moss-clad dolmen in a woodland glade, which has the undesirable side effect of enmeshing her in the family’s web of frictions.
Plot, such as it is, unfolds in glances. The prospect of calamity lurks unguessably, as if the script itself is trying to calculate what happens next, just like the characters on whose faces the camera will linger for 15 seconds, performing the same psychological interrogation as an Old Master portraitist. As Francine, Iris Bry in her first role is bewitchingly adept at silent communication, her strong square face gliding from joy and wonder to anxiety and defiance. The film’s other multitasking star is Marie-Julie Maille, Beauvois’s regular editor, who also co-wrote the script and has a moving cameo as a wife receiving bad news from the front. Perhaps she is the film’s true guardian.
In Of Gods and Men the source was the actual murder of seven monks in Algeria. Since then Beauvois has riffed on another true story in The Price of Fame — the digging-up of Charlie Chaplin’s coffin by two hapless crooks. It is mentioned only in the small print of the closing credits that The Guardians is based on Les Gardiennes, a novel by Ernest Pérochon (1885–1942), who wrote a series of Zolaesque works located in the same region of eastern France. None was translated into English. Nêne, which won the Prix Goncourt and was filmed in 1924, is his only other cinema adaptation. This is a true find, therefore, and a captivating addition to the filmography of the first world war.