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THE GUARDIANS - Tuesday 5th November 7.30pm at St Mary's
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The Guardians
France
2017
138 mins
Director Xavier Beauvois
Starring Nathalie Baye, Laura Smet, Iris Bry
Cert 15
Subtitled

Review

The story of France’s land girls during World War I is told with patience and painterly finesse in this softly virtuosic period drama from Xavier (Of Gods and Men) Beauvois, based on a 1924 novel by Ernest Pérochon. The place is the pastoral folds and plains of the Limousin in the Massif Central, the year 1915, the mood tense but perseverant.

With a few elderly exceptions, the region’s menfolk are gone, swallowed up by the front some 400 miles to the northeast. So it falls to the women to till the soil and gather the crops – women like 20-year-old orphan Francine (screen newcomer Iris Bry), who arrives at the door of stoic, pewter-haired farmer’s widow Hortense (Natalie Baye) on a 12-month contract, ready to do her bit. 

The war itself is rarely glimpsed, but always invisibly present, through both the landscape’s eerie half-emptiness and the water-torture drip of death notices announced in church or by telegram on the doorstep, as Beauvois’s camera observes the mourners’ faces.

When Hortense’s son Georges (Cyril Descours) comes home on leave, a new seam of sexual tension is struck through the daily routine: Georges is at least informally betrothed to young Marguerite (Mathilde Viseux), but he and Francine strike up a close relationship, and the two correspond by letter when he returns to active duties. Hortense’s daughter Solange (played by Baye’s real daughter, Laura Smet) is already married, but her husband Clovis (Olivier Rabourdin) has been turned fractious and embittered by the conflict – a far cry from the handsome American GIs now roving around the landscape.

Beauvois’s vision of the period is totally convincing, and his depiction of hardscrabble farm life rings with a quiet vibrancy – a slow-burn story of tragedy and betrayal takes shape, but some of the best moments here are when the film just watches Hortense, Francine and Solange go about their work, and sequences in which charcoal is made in a mossy forest kiln and pats of golden butter are slapped into shape in the pantry look like magical rites.

But the film doesn’t go overboard on period detail. It feels so truthful thanks to its particular way of looking: cinematographer Caroline Champetier’s compositions look like canvasses by Daubigny, Corot and Millet, capturing the essence of each scene and setting so vividly, you can almost inhale it.

Beauvois is working in what the director Paul Schrader calls “transcendental style”: austere camerawork, unselfconscious performances, and a lack of obvious emotional guidance from editing and music. As such, there is very little score here, though the great New Wave composer Michel Legrand has provided a handful of lilting, flute-led pastorales that accompany transitional moments in the plot, such as Francine’s first journey to Hortense’s farm: traditional folk songs are also sparingly but evocatively deployed.

The film is as attuned to the turn of the seasons as it is to its characters’ fates, and makes the two feel like parts of the same, ancient drumbeat.

Robbie Collin, The Telegraph

 

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