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September 11, 2018

The Guardians


Les gardiennes
Xavier Beauvois - 2017
Music Box Films

The opening of The Guardians is a traveling shot surveying a group of dead soldiers, all wearing gas masks. Most of the film takes place during World War One, beginning in 1916 when it is clear after two years that the war will not be as short as anticipated, ending two years later with France now settled back into civilian existence. Except for a soldier's nightmare of being in battle, the war is unseen, taking place well beyond the small rural village. The impact is visible with a population made up of women, young children and old men.

Hortense, the matriarch of a farm, hires a young woman, Francine, to help out, initially as seasonal help. Francine is kept on full-time. The sturdy redhead attracts the attention of Hortense's son, Georges, who is temporarily on leave. The two become lovers. Francine is later seen by Hortense and Georges fending off the advances of an American soldier stationed in town. Even though Hortense is aware of Francine's innocence, she is dismissed due to Hortense's concerns about the reputation of the family.

All of which brings up the question regarding who are the guardians and what or who is being protected. Even the idea of the soldiers being the guardians of France is questioned. An early scene is of school children reciting an anti-German poem with reference to "the Krauts". Hortense's other soldier son, Clovis, has a more human view of the Germans. Georges has a nightmare of fighting of the enemy single-handedly only to unmask a soldier and see himself. Hortense sees her role as defending her family, while Francine declares that her yet to be born son will act as her protector. Tradition is forced to give way to modernization as machinery is used to replace the manual harvesting of the wheat fields.

Nathalie Baye is virtually unrecognizable as Hortense, looking much older than her actual age. Francine is played by Iris Bry, spotted by a casting director on the street with no reported acting experience at age 22. A new French female star? I'm not making any predictions, while one critic has compared Bry to Isabelle Huppert, probably more for the similar hair color.

One of my favorite moments is when Georges and Francine meet for a discreet render-vous in the woods, stopping at an area with what appears to have been the remnant of a neolithic monument. Beauvois films the hands of Francine and Georges feeling the surface of one of the large standing stones. The two hands are next to each other, finally locked together. The scene is one of the few with Michel Legrand's sparsely heard music on the soundtrack. The music is wistfully romantic, and as such recalls the kind of moments associated with the earlier films of Francois Truffaut and Jacques Demy.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 11, 2018 09:58 AM