Xavier Beauvois’ eighth feature, the stirringly lovely French historical drama “The Guardians” (Les gardiennes), places women in a succession of silences and gentle melodies. Beauvois’ craft is translucent, restrained and in the end, deeply moving, using all the classical elements of filmmaking to craft an elegant movie. France is in its second year of war in 1915, the men fight and women mind the land.
The Paridier farm is tended by a mother and her daughter as well as a young woman who grew up in the care of the state. The work is hard and repetitious. Beautiful sunrise, beautiful sunset, tilling the fields with horse-drawn plows between. Misty days and sunny days alike: work. Beauvois presents their days and bits of their dreams in precise images: they are figures in widescreen painterly settings of agriculture before mechanization, but the beauty Beauvois captures escapes them. (He cites paintings by van Gogh under the influence of Millet more important to his enterprise than movies.)
Plant the wheat, grind the wheat. Seasons accelerate. The War is far away, with only a few glimpses of battle, largely dreamt by the characters. Snow flocks the land. The war will end in a couple of years, won’t it? It’s all very straightforward, including the acting by Nathalie Baye, her real-life daughter Laura Smet and first-time actress Iris Bry, capturing the bond of communal strength that holds the women. Beauvois captures Bry as the bright center of his movie: “When I saw Iris, I realized that I was standing in front of a bomb,” he has said. “All I did was give her the room she deserved. She was able to turn Francine into the embodiment of women at the beginning of the twentieth century.”
The light of the countryside in Beauvois’ effortless depiction, natural light captured digitally, draws on the skill that comes from collaborators like cinematographer Caroline Champetier with their own tradition. Not so much a tradition of “quality” than the quality of tradition, which also encompasses a spare, gently melodic score by Michel Legrand. 134m. Widescreen. (Ray Pride)
“The Guardians” opens Friday, May 25 at the Music Box.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.