Rating: 3 stars
Like the cinematic equivalent of slow food, “The Guardians” is a rich, simmering cassoulet of a film, one that asks viewers to adjust their metabolisms accordingly. In a season when the top movies are jangly assemblages of rapid edits, frantic action scenes and endlessly escalating visual effects, this handsomely staged production plays like a soothingly thoughtful balm.
Nathalie Baye plays Hortense, the matriarch of a French family who has been separated by World War I. In 1915, when “The Guardians” begins, her sons Constant (Nicolas Giraud) and Georges (Cyril Descours) have been away fighting, along with her son-in-law Clovis (Olivier Rabourdin). Now tending the family farm with the aid of her daughter Solange (Laura Smet), Hortense decides to take on a hired girl named Francine to help with the harvest; the young woman is so hard-working and honest that she quickly becomes a trusted member of household.
Played by the Titian-haired actress Iris Bry, Francine exerts an otherworldly pull on Hortense and her family, becoming an object of fascination to nearly everyone she meets, including Georges during a home leave. Thanks to Bry’s stoic but expressive performance, she has the same power over the audience, her simultaneously earthy and ethereal persona suggesting a wisdom far beyond her years. Meanwhile, Baye and Smet — who happen to be mother and daughter in real life — continue the difficult labor of meeting the demands of the farm, mowing wheat, milking a herd of elegant Limousin cows, planting new crops and saving up for a new baler and tractor.
Based on Ernest Pérochon’s 1924 novel, “The Guardians” plays almost like a bookend to “Journey’s End,” another splendid World War I drama released this year. Where that film dramatized the sacrifice and waste of trench warfare at its most vicious and hopeless, here director Xavier Beauvois pays simple but moving tribute to the contributions made by women whose smarts, resourcefulness and loyalty on the home front ensured there would be a viable life to return to. Beauvois, who directed the magnificent 2010 drama “Of Gods and Men,” here evinces the same taste for quiet, deliberate storytelling, panning his camera over the faces of Hortense, Solange, Francine and their female neighbors, or lingering on the figure of a soldier disappearing slowly into a morning mist. Seen through Beauvois’s painterly eye, the farm and its environs take on a rough-hewed beauty. A scene in which the women scythe their way through a hayfield possesses the lyricism and sensitivity of a chapter from Tolstoy.
As an evocation of life during wartime, “The Guardians” provides a valuable counternarrative to traditional stories of battle, death and trauma — although each of those things makes an appearance. But it’s Francine — an orphan whose uncertain lineage has given her the gift of almost instant adaptation to ever-changing circumstances — who dominates a story as ambiguous and elusive as it is compelling. “The Guardians” takes its characters all the way to 1920, by which time the war is over and the world is in the throes of cataclysmic social change. Francine intends to be a part of it, the film suggests, regardless of who might approve.
R. At Landmark’s West End Cinema and the Cinema Arts Theatre. Contains some violence and sexuality. In French and English with subtitles. 135 minutes.