This is a long film (135 minutes) and, for its first thirty minutes or so, slow-paced with seemingly little narrative development. But gradually the narrative drive intensifies and we realise just how much we have absorbed so far. It’s also very beautiful, without ever succumbing to the chocolate-box beauty of so many ‘realist’ historical films. I found it very satisfying as well as thought-provoking. The director is Xavier Beauvois, best-known in the UK as director of Of Gods and Men (France 2010). As an actor I saw him in Claire Denis’ Let the Sunshine In (France-Belgium 2017) and it’s hard to equate the character he played in that film with the sensitive intellect behind Les gardiennes.
Xavier Beauvois wrote the film’s script with two women, Marie-Julie Maille and Frédérique Moreau as an adaptation of a 1924 novel by Ernest Pérochon. This is very much a film about three women. As the French title suggests the women are ‘guardians’ and the narrative explores who or what they might be protecting, what they did and what the repercussions might be. Pérochon was an interesting man who in 1914 was a schoolteacher in rural Western France in what is now ‘New Acquitaine’. Posted to the front in 1914 he was invalided out after suffering a heart attack and in 1920 wrote a novel which won the Prix Goncourt. In 1924 he published Les gardiennes. Beginning with a pan across the dead on the Western Front in 1915, a cut reveals the peace of rural Western France where a mother and her grown-up daughter are running the family farm of the Paridiers with three of their men in the Army and Hortense’s brother Henri, too arthritic to do much more than make alcohol. This leaves Hortense, Madame Paridier (Nathalie Baye), running the farm with her daughter Solange (Laura Smet, the real-life daughter of Nathalie Baye). The three men at the front are Constant and Georges, Hortense’s sons, and Clovis, Solange’s husband. There is also Marguerite, whose status isn’t clear to me, possibly she is the younger sister of Clovis? Certainly she is part of the extended family. With the men away, Hortense needs more help on the farm and she is offered Francine (Iris Bry) a strong healthy woman of 20 who has been ‘in care’ in the district, brought up in an orphanage and is now seeking a sense of ‘belonging’.
Francine is the external character whose arrival will have an impact on the family. Her impact is compounded by the war and, in 1917, by the arrival of some American troops. The narrative takes us from 1915 until after the war and the bulk of the film follows the seasons on the farm. Having proved her worth in the first few probationary months, Francine is kept on and begins to become part of the family. In this period the film becomes almost a procedural study of life on the farm. It develops into a film drawing on several genres or familiar narrative types. First it is a realist rural narrative with aspects of an observational documentary, next it is a rural ‘Home Front’ narrative (and thereby a female-centred narrative) and finally a romance melodrama since it is inevitable that Francine’s presence in this situation will offer the opportunity for romance and for conflict in the family. This mixture is unusual and I tried to think of similar films. One of the closest might be David Leland’s Land Girls (UK-France 1998), an under-rated romance drama which is a Second World War setting in which three land girls (the British auxiliary service providing extra labour for farms in wartime) are sent to a Dorset farm. Both films share an interest in social class differences but the British film aims for more humour to go with similar dramatic concerns.
Part of the interest in Les gardiennes is the way in which the management of the farm by the women leads to ‘modernisation’ in the form of farm machinery and power. This has the clear suggestion that the women are quite capable of running the farm and that there is potential for conflict when/if the men return from war. I also remembered that the key moment of modernisation is located in the immediate aftermath of the Great War in Bertolucci’s 1900 (Italy-France-West Germany 1976). 1900 is a political melodrama in which the machinery appears under the control of a fascist element which will gradually take control over the peasantry and replace the landowners. The harvest is a key symbol in this struggle since it was traditionally the most collective enterprise in any rural community involving many of the local population. The harvest is also a key narrative element in Far From the Madding Crowd, the Thomas Hardy novel twice adapted for major films in the UK. It’s from an earlier period but it is also a narrative about a woman running a farming operation.
Nathalie Baye and Laura Smet are very good as the two women running the farm but Iris Bry is a revelation in her first film (of any kind, it appears). I couldn’t believe she was a novice and that she was ‘discovered’ working for her library qualifications. She looks and sounds the part and also sings beautifully. No wonder director Beauvois was staggered by how lucky he was. He says in the Press Notes (only available in French unfortunately) that he didn’t want a ‘modern young woman’ with modern manners and tattoos. He wanted a young woman who could have been a peasant in the 1910s and who could grow into a twentieth century woman. Iris Bry has the healthy body of someone who could milk cows, bale corn and do all the jobs around the farm and do so with an open and attractive face – and in the last section of the film could cut her hair into a style that announces a young woman of 1920s cinema. I think in 1915 she would have been thought of as a ‘bonny lass’. The film’s cinematographer Caroline Champetier has said that no matter how she lit a scene, the light would always find Iris, because she is naturally photogenic. I like Ms Champetier’s work very much and here she catches the moments in the day on the farm when there is a special light, whether it is in the mists of an autumn morning or the ‘magic hour’ of a summer’s evening. She also utilises the ‘Scope frame . Unfortunately I could not find stills to illustrate either of these points but both are there in the trailer below. The other important aesthetic consideration is the sound and the music score. The latter is by Michel Legrand but used quite sparingly and I enjoyed the silence in many scenes. Make sure you stay through the credits to catch all of Iris Bry’s singing.
I enjoyed this film very much and I’ve thought about it a great deal since. It’s distributed by Curzon so it is available to stream now, but I urge you to see it on the biggest screen you can find. I saw it at HOME in Manchester where it is still showing this week alongside Sheffield Showroom and Tyneside, Newcastle in the North of England.