The second film in my ‘My French Film Festival’ programme continues a trend for rural dramas that have flourished in the last few year in the UK. God’s Own Country (2017) The Levelling (2016) and Dark River (2017) might all be included in the category. The Wind Turns (also listed as With the Wind) shares some elements with Alice Rohrwacher’s The Wonders (Italy-Switzerland-Germany 2014). Here is Swiss-German director Bettina Oberli tackling a story by Antoine Jaccoud about a couple on a farm in the Jura Region of Switzerland. As in The Wonders, they are attempting a traditional approach to farming without the use of modern agribusiness methods and, also as in The Wonders, they accept a young person to stay with them over the summer. But other than that, the films are quite different. I do also remember another Swiss film which shares some elements with this rural drama: Animal Heart (2009)
The script doesn’t divulge too much information at first so I’ll try to maintain some of the surprises.The couple running the farm are Alex (Pierre Deladonchamps) and Pauline (Mélanie Thierry) and we first meet them dealing with a distressing situation – a calf is still-born in an open field. Next day, however, they meet their summer guest Galina (Anastasia Shevtsova) who is from a village near Chernobyl and is coming to stay with her medication for the fresh air and natural way of life as she recovers from radiation poisoning. A little later a second ‘guest’ appears – Samuel (Nuno Lopes), an engineer who has come to oversee the installation of a contradictory high-tech solution to the need for power on the farm in the form of a single wind turbine which will generate electricity for lighting etc.
Alex and Paul have very different outlooks on life. Alex has strong beliefs and wants to stick to them come what may. Samuel is both more cynical and more easygoing. He travels the world installing this kit but you get the feeling he could install any kind of equipment and he soon finds himself at odds with Alex despite his own nonchalant manner. Pauline is clearly attracted to Samuel and also warmly welcomes Galina. Both the guests seem much livelier than Alex and occasionally Pauline needs a good time. The other disruptive influence is Mara (Audrey Cavelius), Pauline’s sister who is a vet. Alex is reluctant to let Mara near the animals, fearing she may treat them with unnecessary medication.
This rural melodrama involves human conflicts, some sexual encounters and the power of nature, in particular wind, rain and fog. The raising of the wind tower is both a focus for collective action and celebration and a potent symbol of ‘disruption’.
Bettina Oberli is German-speaking Swiss so undertaking a francophone film was a challenge. She does have at least one starry collaborator in the form of Céline Sciamma and also Mélanie Thierry who seemed very familiar to me but I can only think of Bertrand Tavernier’s La princesse de Montpensier (France 2010) as a film of hers that I have seen. She has a strong presence and she becomes the centre of the film around which the other performances can be built. The Swiss landscape is well-captured by Stéphane Kuthy who has documentary shoots on his CV, evident in his coverage of the installation and the various farm routines. I also enjoyed the music of Arnaud Rebotini.
I’ve been an organic gardener and a strong supporter of sustainable agriculture for many years and I found some scenes in the film quite distressing but I also recognised the very strongly-held views about farming, especially as held by Alex, and how they can lead to a very blinkered approach to problems. The narrative is certainly believable and the open ending gives pause for thought. It’s another short film, well under 90 minutes but packs quite a punch as a worthwhile festival film. The film opens with a long quote by the British author Rebecca West which encapsulates the ideas behind the narrative, but I can’t find the source text.
Here’s the trailer with English subs:
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 Sandrail (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 daughter of Clovis from a previous marriage? 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.
Writer-director Alice Rohrwacher made a strong début with her 2011 film Corpo celeste (Heavenly Body) which showed in Director’s Fortnight at Cannes, winning a prize. Her new film The Wonders won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2014 and like her earlier film has some autobiographical influences.
Alice Rohrwacher has an Italian mother and a German father who was a beekeeper. The family at the centre of the film comprises an Italian mother, Angelica (the director’s sister Alba Rohrwacher, a well-known Italian actor), a German father (Belgian actor Sam Louwick) who keeps bees in the organic/’natural’/’bio’ manner, their four young daughters and Coco a family friend (also German). It isn’t clear if they are squatting on the land or renting it. They don’t have much money and the bulk of the work seems to be organised by Wolfgang, but actually carried out by the eldest daughter Gelsomina
The film is difficult to categorise. There are strong elements of neo-realism and also moments of something vaguely spiritual or fantastical. It’s funny, dramatic and moving. In genre terms it’s a ‘coming of age’ narrative, but just as importantly a commentary on aspects of contemporary society – delivered with humour but also acuity.
The honey ‘business’ has all kinds of problems, but the ‘disruptions’ that drive the narrative are a reality TV show, ‘The Wonders’, and the arrival of a 14 year-old boy seemingly as cheap labour on some kind of rehabilitation scheme (he’s German as well). The reality show is a brilliant satire of Italian TV in which Monica Bellucci is a kind of carnival queen looking for colourful locals who can represent the farming community in coastal Tuscany and evoke the ancient Etruscan culture. Gelsomina is entranced and secretly registers the family for the show. The boy says very little but entrances the girls with his ability to whistle.
“. . . a film about the countryside, the somewhat peculiar love between a father and his daughters, missing male sons, animals and little people that live in the television. It’s a film in the viterbese dialect, but when the characters are angry, they respond sometimes in French and German. Le meraviglie is also a fable.” (Alice Rohrwacher in the Press Notes)
The film’s real strength is Rohrwacher’s commentary on being an outsider. This specific region of Italy, where Tuscany, Lazio and Umbria meet is a place where dialect is still important and mingles with the languages of migrants. Though many think of rural areas as somehow more ‘pure’ and monocultural, they are in this region likely to include the mixed family groups of which this family is representative. (Alexandra Lungu who plays Gelsomina comes from a Romanian family.) Rohrwacher also points to the marginal position of Wolfgang and Angelica in terms of politics and lifestyles:
“They are people that arrived in the country as a political choice because in the cities there were no more jobs and years of demonstrations had been stifled by violence and disillusionment. So they read books, learned to make a vegetable garden with handbooks and fought the seasons alone. They are all ex-somethings, with different languages, distant pasts, but common ideals. I have met many families like this in Italy, France, and Greece. Small communities untethered to the rest, with autonomous rules and a parallel life to those we read about in newspapers. It isn’t a simple life: you have to work hard and it is difficult to survive without the comfort of belonging to a movement. You are not a true farmer because you are not from the land, but you can also no longer be defined as a city person. You are not hippies because you break your back from sun-up to sundown, but you are also not agricultural entrepreneurs because you reject the use of more efficient agricultural technology in the name of a healthier life. Not having a movement, a definition which can be ascribed from the outside, all that remains is one word: family.”
Rohrwacher talks about the post-1968 generation and conflicting ideas about what the changes post-1968 might mean – but it’s also worth thinking about the large number of migrants from Africa now entering Italy and Greece to access other EU states.