Monday, April 30, 2018

A family of French farmers deals with World War I in Xavier Beauvois' THE GUARDIANS

Ah, a new film from Xavier Beauvois! This is the fellow who gave us both Le Petit Lieutenant and Of Gods and Men, two films that TrustMovies enjoyed very much. And yet, when I went to further research Beauvois on the IMDB, I was shocked to discover that, while I think of this man more as a filmmaker than an actor, I had actually seen much more of his work in the latter category than the former. His acting is perfectly fine, but it's as writer/director that I most remember him -- particularly for his multi-award-winning Of Gods and Men.

M. Beauvois, shown at left, is an unhurried movie-maker. He takes his sweet time and concentrates on the details -- of character, situation, location and time period. While this can make his filmmaking slow-paced as was, even to some extent, his police procedural, Le Petit Lieutenant, his work is never for a moment uninteresting. His latest entry as director and co-adapter (with Marie-Julie Maille and Frédérique Moreau) of the novel by Ernest Pérochon, is THE GUARDIANS (Les gardiennes), a story of World War I set entirely on the French home front with not a scene of war-time action to be found.

Oh, the movie begins clearly and cleverly enough with a long tracking-the-landscape shot of dead bodies, some of these wearing gas masks, so we immediately know the WWI time frame. Yet, once the film's story begins we never leave that home front -- the farm and the village in which our group of main characters live and labor.

Yes, young male characters come and go (early on, one of the sons of the family comes home for a short leave, followed by the leave of a second son and a son-in-law), only to be killed, wounded or taken prisoner by the Germans. Yet we never see any of this; we only hear about it second-hand.

This means we concentrate mostly on the womenfolk who must carry on just as before, but without the help of the stronger males. The work, if you know anything about farming (and a century ago!), is difficult, often back-breaking, and near-constant, yet these women must manage it.

The film's female leads include the mother (the usually glamorous Natalie Baye, above, looking as plain and aged as we've ever seen her),

her daughter (the lovely and, as as one character calls her, "elegant" Laura Smet, above), and a young worker the family must hire as help who has only recently left the orphanage in which she was raised (the wonderful red-haired newcomer Iris Bry, shown below and on poster, top, whom we are certain to see again soon).

What happens to all these folk, women and men, is as believable, sometimes terrible and always understated as life itself. Beauvois and his co-writers have managed to include so little coincidence into their film that when a sample of that credibility-ripping stuff suddenly happens (involving an overseen kiss), it comes as quite a shock. But I think any film deserves a single instance of this, so you'll probably be able to let this one pass. (Downton Abbey this movie definitely is not.)

Performances are everything you could want them to be --  as real as the farmhouse dirt. These people are not big on a lot of talking, so we get used to the silence and visual routine of their lives and then hang on their occasional words, as events pile up and more needs to be said.

The great strength of Beauvois and his cast and crew's work is that though some terrible things happen, some out of the characters' control, others firmly within that control, we are somehow able to understand the dreadful injustice of all this -- given, especially, the time and place. That our heroine is able to accept this and move on is difficult but salutary, and the filmmaker never underscores her achievement with the usual soaring music and feel-good stance. Instead The Guardians (ironic title, that) achieves its ends in all too ordinary but appropriate ways. This is good, strong, rooted filmmaking, and I hope you will give it a viewing.

From Music Box Films, in French with English subtitles and running 135 minutes, the movie opens this Friday, May 4, in New York City at the Quad Cinema and on the following Friday, May 11, in the Los Angeles area at Laemmle's Royal and Playhouse 7. In the weeks following, the film will hit another 15 or so cities. Click here and then click on THEATERS on the task bar half-way down the screen to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and venues.

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