Alfred Hitchcock said ‘drama is life with all the dull bits cut out’. Well, Xavier Beauvoir clearly does not chime with the master of suspense’s précis on the dramatic form. After all, The Guardians is a land maid’s tale that could certainly benefit from a little more propulsion and a little less time chewing the proverbial cud.
Matters are set in the heart of a working farm in rural France during the 1914-18 Great War. Twenty-year-old orphan Francine (Iris Bry) accepts a post working with the incumbent family on their farm. This wide-eyed outsider, keen to impress, embeds herself with well-intended dedication and impresses matriarch, Hortense (Nathalie Baye).
Over the course of intermittent periods of leave back home, Hortense’s son catches the eye of Francine and the furtive glances turn into romance. Meanwhile, the infiltration of stationed American troops, who seem to be solely preoccupied with good time jollies, make inroads with Hortense’s daughter. Word escapes around the nearby village and her mother acts in a manner she feels is best when reputation and pride hang on the line.
Slow, ambling takes soak up the monotony and drudgery of everyday life in this verdant and auburn landscape; as the seasons of the year roam through their endless, looping cycle. This succeeds in portraying the meditative qualities of ritual, but also the frustrations that arise too. Parochial mindsets lead to deep-rooted prejudice and a broader resistance to change; and there is a hint of criticism of this cultural symptom as much as the wider virtues of the ‘simple life’ are celebrated.
The 128-year restoration of the Sagrada Familia feels like a faster moving process than being locked into this work. Maybe that’s the point though, as Beauvoir certainly seems less intent on providing anything close to action until the final third. This is not an unusual approach for him, but there is an argument to be made that if you remain enigmatic, you run the risk of the observer remaining at an arm’s length away and any denouement is going fail to ignite the emotions. In this instance, when tempers do finally flare and the sparks do finally fly, beneath the entire hullabaloo, what you have is quite a conventional and hackneyed narrative.
It is a narrative that has none of the gut-punching cache of Terence Davies’ similarly-themed Sunset Song, for instance. Whilst there are shades of the likes of Bruno Dumont and Bela Tarr in form and style, it fails to reach (in particular) the latter’s estimable greatness. It is certainly nowhere near the giddy heights of his Beauvoir’s own indomitable triumph Of Gods and Men, despite the similarly elegiac quality at play here.
The Guardians showcases a time when the sweat and toil of the fields were left to a dirtier-handed brand of girl power. In this way, Beauvoir rightly celebrates the other side of the war yet, disappointingly, the overall product does not stand up to his own impressive past.
The Guardians is in cinemas 17th August 2018