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THE GUARDIANS (2018) review

May 25, 2018

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written by: Xavier Beauvois, Marie-Julie Maille and Frédérique Moreau (screenplay) & Ernest Pérochon (novel)
produced by: Sylvie Pialat and Benoît Quainon
directed by: Xavier Beauvois
rated: R (for some violence and sexuality)
runtime: 138 min.
U.S. release date: May 25, 2018 (Music Box Theatre, Chicago, IL)

 

“Well, Pa, a woman can change better’n a man. A man lives sorta – well, in jerks. Baby’s born or somebody dies, and that’s a jerk. He gets a farm or loses it, and that’s a jerk. With a woman, it’s all in one flow, like a stream – little eddies and waterfalls – but the river, it goes right on. Woman looks at it thata way.”

That’s a poignant line from Ma Joad, concerned mother of Henry Fonda’s Tom Joad in John Ford’s “The Grapes of Wrath”, played with great emotional impact by Jane Darwell, who would go on to win an Best Supporting Actress Oscar the following year. I recently saw Ford’s 1940 classic for the first time. The adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel happened to be on TCM and knowing it was on my blind spot film list, I saw no good reason to leave the couch. To say I was rewarded is putting it lightly. I thought about that dialogue and the woman who said it after viewing the “The Guardians”, the latest film from French writer/director Xavier Beauvois, which is a showcase for hard-working women of a certain era. Coincidentally, both films are adaptations of novels and feature strong and resilient women.

The film opens in 1915, taking place on and around the Paridier farm in the French countryside, spanning roughly four years as the story unfolds. While the men of a certain age are off fighting in The Great War, the women must fend for themselves and maintain the home and land each family owns. The Sandrail family is one such family, in which matriarch Hortense (Nathalie Baye) must tend to the workload of her family’s farm with her two sons, Constant and Georges and her son-in-law, Clovis are off at war. She is assisted by her daughter, Solange (Laura Smet), but the workload is becoming overwhelming for just the two of them. With the fall harvest looming, Hortense turns to the local bank for help and she is given a orphaned teenager, Francine (Iris Bry), to hire and help with the daily tasks. This turns out to be beneficial to Hortense and her family as well as Francine, since the quiet young woman causes no trouble and is a hard worker.

If “The Guardians” (“Les Gardiennes”, in French) focused solely on the women, it would be just fine, but it’s more interesting when certain men are included, but at the same time the inclusion of these men provide the film with some of its flimsiest characterizations. We meet Hortense’s sons and Solange’s husband when they come home on leave and, as expected, a couple of them are shell-shocked, one more than the other, while the other uses some old school moves on the new hire. We’re not with these men long, but they definitely serve their purpose – adding dimensions to the women who are closest to them (or at least supposed to be), providing a more rewarding portrayal of these strong female characters.

 

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The most interesting of the men is the first one we meet, Hortense’s firstborn, Constant (Nicolas Giraud), who was the town’s schoolteacher. He is definitely a little shaken from the war, appearing numb as he visits his students at the school house. His mother and sister are happy to have him back, but feel the foreboding grief of knowing that he’ll have to return. Clovis (Olivier Rabourdin) seems much more withdrawn and unlike himself – as a young preteen girl and family friend, Margueritte (Mathilde Viseux), observes at dinner – who rambles on about how the Germans “are just like us” and appears emotionally impotent around his wife, Solange. Then there’s Hortense’s youngest, the dreamy Georges (Cyril Descours) who takes an immediate liking to the red-haired, fair-skinned Francine – understandably so, considering she is something new and different to a place he is familiar with.

During his short time there, Georges tries some eye-rolling cliched lines on Francine, like ““I’m leaving tomorrow. I may not come back” and even promises to take her to his favorite part of the woods. I guess such behavior would be tolerable, if Georges came across like a naive, pure-hearted kind young man, but he seems a little off actually. When he first encounters Francine, he walks up to her and just stares at her and then asks her if he intimidates her. Huh? For some reason, that line from author Margaret Atwood came to mind – “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Woman are afraid that men will kill them” – came to mind after that initial interaction, which is why it was hard for me to believe the love affair that Georges and Francine embark on. They get to know each other after he’s joined his fellow soldiers by way of letters over a period of months. Hortense has offered to keep Francine in her employment due to her devoted service and the fact that she’s become like another family member – or so we (and Francine) think.

As we’ve come to know by way of social media or internet communication, writing your thoughts and feelings is much different than presenting them and expressing them in person. On paper, Francine and Georges are able to take their time and write what’s on their heart, sometimes as a source of encouragement and other times an opportunity for inner confessions. Beauvois provides an inner monologue for Francine while she writes to Georges, so we mostly hear her voice while she writes. This is a bit of hindrance when it comes to truly believing that something is developing between both of them equally. So, when Georges finally returns for an extended stay, he barely shows any sign of a man who is willing and ready to accept Francine’s heart, but rather a guy opening to getting under her skirt.

I may never have been sold on what Francine sees in Georges, but at the same time, I understand her situation. She’s an orphan, unknown to many and here’s this family who’s given her employment and then the hunky son of her boss takes an interest in her. She falls in love. Has she fallen in love with him or the idea of someone wanting her? I get, but I don’t necessarily like it. Maybe she sees in him someone she thinks she needs, rather than who he truly is. There’s also the idea of Francine offering a lifeline to Georges through these letters, something she agrees to do, which becomes a kind of well-intended service, maybe even an outlet, that she provides. It’s her nature, after all, to serve.

 

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“The Guardians” is at its best during its first hour, especially before Georges comes home for that extended stay. Beavois takes his time getting viewers acclimated to the environment, often just steadied on what the women are doing on the farm (inside or outside), rarely included a montage of farm work scenes, providing a sense of who they are while addressing what they are committed to in their day-to-day life. It helps to spend so much time watching them harvest wheat by hand (using sickles or scythes) and bundling them into sheaves, because we’re much more invested when we see the elated response from the women when a new tractor is purchased to make their job easier and more efficient. Never would I have thought that flipping through a couple pages of a tractor catalog by candlelight could be so exciting, but when you see how desperate these women are for a little relief, it seems quite fitting.

Much like the way in which Ford gives us a strong and resilient Ma Joad throughout “The Grapes of Wrath”, the women of the Paridier farm, Beauvois places the quiet strength and resilience of Hortense, Solange and Francine front and center. He patiently spends time getting to who they are and what they do, often just by having cinematographer Caroline Champetier (who lensed “Holy Motors” and Beauvois’ “Of Gods and Men”) follow the woman – as if they are being studied, watching them toil away in the wheat fields, milking cows in the morning and sprinkling seeds in the cultivated earth in the evening. The work has to get done or their family won’t get fed and the bank will take their property. Who else is going to do the work? What choice do these women have?

It’s also telling and haunting to see how the film opens…the camera pans across a misty war-torn World War I battlefield where dozens of lifeless men are strewn about like discarded action figures. It’s telling because the rest of the movie focused on the families of these men and where they came from and it makes you think about how any of these men could be the son, brother or husband of these hard-working women back home, which is one of the reasons that makes such a scene so haunting.

What occurs in the second half of the film feels less authentic and natural than what came before it and that’s wholly due to the storyline, not the performances. The performances from the three women – Nathalie Baye, Laura Smet and newcomer Iris Bry are solid throughout – but what is ultimately required of their characters isn’t as satisfying as one hopes after investing in who they are. They become victims of unfortunate misconceptions and Hortense in particular responds poorly even though she’s acting to “protect the family”. I didn’t care for where the story was going here, especially when there’s a missed opportunity for a woman to stand up for another woman.

 

 

Maybe the film’s second half and conclusion are in the 1924 novel by award-winning French author Ernest Pérochon, but I feel like it ultimately suffers slightly from a predictable storyline. The screenwriters really miss out on a chance to rise above tired expectations at this point in the film. There’s also some odd choices made in the second half of “The Guardians”. I’ll give them credit for wedging in a vivid post-traumatic nightmare that Georges experiences into the storyline, where he single handedly takes out a group of gas-masked Nazis. It’s an interesting albeit abrupt way to incorporate the emotional toll and mental strain war has on men, but I couldn’t help but feeling this could’ve been shown in subtler ways, especially if it’s going to evoke a key scene with a certain tree on Dagobah from “The Empire Strikes Back”.

Beauvois, who recently showed up in Clare Denis’ “Let the Sunshine In” as a pretty awful suitor of Juliette Binoche, knows a few things about wartime stories after winning big at Cannes with “Of Gods and Men” back in 2010. His painterly approach, attention to detail and focus on who these woman are make “The Guardians” worth viewing, despite some misgivings on how the story concludes.

 

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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