Women in Wartime: Xavier Beauvois' 'The Guardians' offers a documentary-like portrait of WWI hardship in rural France

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French writer-director Xavier Beauvois’ The Guardians is set in World War I, in the rural southwest of France. It is about women who are left to manage their farm after the men in the family go to war. Not unlike American women during World War II, French women kept the country afloat, sustaining France’s agrarian economy; as the film illustrates, they also mechanized farms and supported the war effort. The obvious pleasure Beauvois takes in depicting these period details in The Guardians (from Music Box Films) is in part born of childhood memories of his grandfather’s farm. The filmmaker also lives on a seaside farm with his family, including his wife, Marie Julie Maille, the movie’s film editor and one of its co-writers (along with Frédérique Moreau).

Beauvois is best known for his 2011 feature Of Gods and Men, centered on the trials of Cistercian monks in Algeria during that country’s 1996 civil conflict. The Guardians is his first adapted screenplay, and is based on French writer Ernest Pérochon’s eponymous novel, published in 1924.

“My producer, Sylvie Pialat, gave it to me,” Beauvois says, during a March interview in New York City. “Her grandfather had very few books, but she found all of this author’s books on his shelf after he died.” Pérochon, a teacher turned soldier during the First World War, won a prestigious literary prize for his novel Nêne, but was otherwise well known only during his lifetime. His Les Gardiennes is not translated into English. Beauvois explains that in adapting the novel, he cut several characters, mainly children, because The Guardians unfolds over four years, and two actors would have been required for each of the child roles.

As in Of Gods and Men, Beauvois’s directorial approach in The Guardians is that of an omniscient narrator. While events are seen from the point of view of Hortense, the family matriarch, it shifts to other characters as though there were an ensemble cast, or Beauvois were making a documentary. “What you say about documentaries is interesting because I’m absolutely crazy about them,” the filmmaker says, through an interpreter. “I watch at least three a day, and have for the past 25 years.”

Hortense (Nathalie Baye) and her daughter Solange (Baye’s real-life daughter, Laura Smet) are owners of the farm, along with their male relatives: Henri (Gilbert Bonneau), Hortense’s brother; Clovis (Olivier Rabourdin), Solange’s husband, and her siblings, Georges (Cyril Descours) and Constant (Nicolas Giraud). Henri is the only male too old to fight; Clovis, Constant and Georges are soldiers who visit during their military leaves.

Hortense hires Francine (Iris Bry), an itinerant worker, for the harvest, and she proves the equal of any man. Offered another year of work, Francine stays on the farm and meets Georges; afterward, the film switches to her point of view, and at one juncture to Solange’s. “I think this is something that is done very deliberately on my part because I don’t want the viewer to feel that they are sitting in a chair watching something happening in front of them,” Beauvois explains. “I want to bring them into the film, to be an internal witness to the film. I want the viewer to see things from Francine’s point of view and then at another moment from Hortense’s, almost as if we were all seated around the dining room table and I was able to focus on each in turn.” Beauvois, who was born in Northern France, meticulously portrays the travails of country life, and in the end delivers a stinging critique of its class divisions.

The most striking aspect of the film is Bry’s debut performance. “I think it’s probably something that only happens once in a director’s career,” Beauvois observes. “The casting director was walking down the street and Iris was coming out of her bookstore—thirty seconds earlier or later, and she would have been missed.” Bry (pronounced like “brie,” the cheese) is an amateur. “She was a bookstore owner, working on her professional studies,” he notes, “when she agreed to be screen-tested.” After watching that test, Beauvois, who is also an actor, and Pialat offered Bry the role. “I was completely blown away,” Beauvois says of the red-haired actor. “It’s crazy how much the camera loves her. Her face is luminous.”

Asked about the various French accents in the film, only apparent to viewers with knowledge of the language, the filmmaker replies: “If I wanted to be realistic, the actors would have spoken a patois, not standard French, and I would have had to subtitle it.” Beauvois adds that linguistic confusion was a fact of life in the trenches during World War I. “It was known that a lot of soldiers could not understand each other because some came from the North, for instance, and others from Corsica, and they all spoke a different language.”

The Guardians begins with a dream sequence on the battlefield, near the beginning of the war, when the French army suffered their greatest losses. The proximity of the front to farmland is also illustrated early in the film, when Hortense is plowing the fields and cannon fire is heard in the distance.

A striking visual aspect of Beauvois’ films is apparent in The Guardians: his frequent use of panning and tracking. “I am an actor, too, and I know how really annoying it is for an actor to be cut, and we are cut after every three words, which makes it impossible for actors to act,” he says. “In French, the word for ‘act’ is the same word as the one for ‘play.’ Panning gives the actors more pleasure in doing their job.”

Beauvois sometimes appears in uncredited and non-speaking roles in his own films, and in credited roles in other directors’ movies. His latest part is as Vincent in Claire Denis’ Let the Sunshine In. “Really good actors have taken the time to think things through, and when it comes time to act, they’re not acting, they’re being the person they’re portraying.” Longer takes of the actors result in more choices in post-production. “I don’t have to decide what I want just when I’m shooting,” Beauvois says.

In the course of the interview, Beauvois shows pictures of his farm where there are chickens and a donkey named Jean Gabin. Asked to explain miget, a drink made in the film by Henri and Francine that may prove a mystery to American audiences, he replies: “It is mixed for the peasants who are working on the harvest, to give them energy, and it is a combination of wine, water, sugar and bread.” Beauvois’ appreciation of these documentary touches is apparent when he recalls his research forOf Gods and Men. “I visited a monastery, and the first thing I noticed was that the monks sang seven or eight times a day,” he says, “something that wasn’t in the script.” In The Guardians, the initial scene of the harvest depicts hand-cutting and collection of the crop, but in the second scene Hortense and Francine use one of the earliest versions of a hay baler. Later, Solange emerges from a barn astride a tractor. In capturing the historical moment in these objects and implements, Beauvois celebrates the ingenuity of French women during the long and sanguinary “Great War,” when France lost over one million soldiers.