The Guardians

 

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A Pagnolesque French tale set against the background of the First World War.

 
Guardians, The

  

It is hugely disappointing to discover that Xavier Beauvois, the man who in 2010 gave us that masterpiece Of Gods and Men, can turn out something as ill-judged as The Guardians. In addition to being the director here, he is one of three credited with the screenplay adapted from the novel Les Gardiennes by Ernest Pérochon so he has only himself to blame. This new work does have a talented cast, good production values and expert photography in colour and 'Scope by Caroline Charpentier, yet it's a film that fails to recognise its audience and proves to be fatally conflicted when it comes to style.

 

Ending in 1920 but set mainly during the First World War in southern France, The Guardians shows women, the guardians of the title, keeping a farm going in the absence of most of the menfolk. The matriarch, Hortense (Nathalie Baye), can rely on her daughter, Solange (Laura Smet, Baye's daughter in real life), but with two sons, Georges (Cyril Descous) and Constant (Nicolas Giraud), and a son-in-law, Clovis (Olivier Raborudin), only present when on leave, Hortense comes to rely more and more on a new employee, the very able orphan Francine Riant (Iris Bry). However, both the farming and the war instead of having central significance become mere background to a story of love, jealousy and class conflict that many will see as reminiscent of the masterful stories of Marcel Pagnol.

 

On the one hand, then, The Guardians is an attempt to repeat the success of such Pagnol adaptations as those classic favourites of French cinema the Marseille trilogy of the 1930s and the more recent Jean de Florette and its companion piece. This is strongly suggested by the central thread of The Guardians, which is to be found in the story of Francine's love for Georges, a love threatened by Hortense's desire that her son should marry someone of superior standing, Marguerite (Mathilde Viseux).  But, instead of concentrating on that and carrying it forward strongly, Beauvoir goes for a slow pace and a sense of everyday naturalism which, while lacking the political element, seems in many ways closer to Olmi's classic The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978) than to Pagnol. That approach, typified by the quiet realism that Baye brings to her performance as Hortense, may well deter the audience who want a faster pace and are there for the love story. Others might want to defend the deeper realities that Beauvois is seeking, but the film's realistic style is blown out of the water whenever the occasional but prominent music provided by Michel Legrand underscores scenes featuring Francine.

 

It's a further weakness that as told here the story shifts uneasily from character to character - it may in essence be Francine's story but Hortense and her family often take prime position. It is, in fact, Hortense's actions that become pivotal to the plot development, but they don't seem to make sufficient sense (her motivation needs to be clarified, not just hinted at). In point of fact Pérochon's novel appeared 1924 so that his work predated that of Pagnol, but the film strongly brings Pagnol to mind and the fact that his characterisations and his storytelling gifts were superior ensure that The Guardians comes over like an inferior version of his work. Despite a striking performance by Iris Bry as Francine, we don't really care what happens to her. Certain more creditable aspects mean that The Guardians can't truly be described as an absolute disaster, but it feels like one given what we had hoped for from Beauvoir after Of Gods and Men.

 

French title: Les gardiennes.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Nathalie Baye, Laura Smet, Iris Bry, Cyril Descous, Gilbert Bonneau, Olivier Rabourdin, Nicolas Giraud, Mathilde Viseux, Marie-Julie Maille, Yann Bern, Laurence Harvard, Xavier Maly.

 

Dir Xavier Beauvois, Pro Sylvie Pialat and Benoît Quainon, Screenplay Xavier Beauvoir, Marie-Julie Maille and Frédérique Moreau, from the novel Les Gardiennes by Ernest Pérochon, Ph Caroline Charpentier, Art Dir Yann Megard, Ed Marie-Julie Maille, Music Michel Legrand, Costumes Anaïs Romand.

 

Les Films du Worso/Rita Productions/Pathé/Orange Studio/France 3 Cinéma/KNM/Versus Production/RTS Radio Télévision Suisse/Canal+/Ciné+-Curzon Artificial Eye.
135 mins. Switzerland/France. 2017. Rel: 17 August 2018. Cert. 15.