In Review: Les Gardiennes
Director: Xavier Beauvois
Perhaps the summer woods will shimmer bright,
And crimson roses once again be fair,
And autumn harvest fields a rich delight,
Although You are not there.
The third stanza from Vera Brittain’s poem Perhaps - written in 1916 after her fiancé was shot and killed by a German sniper at the age of 20 – could very well have been written by the protagonist of Les Gardiennes, Xavier Beauvois’ unostentatious yet wholly affecting film about the lives of a French farming family in the throes of the Great War. She is Francine (Iris Bry), an industrious lady who, in the absence of virtually all men, has been employed to join the workforce by Hortense - the mother of the Sandrail family. Her distress and pain come from missing her sweetheart - she has fallen in love with Georges, one of Hortense’s children, who she meets during a fleeting visit to the farm from the front.
Apart from an opening montage and short dream sequence, we spend all our time away from the immediate horrors of the war. Beauvois, however, manages to competently deliver the emotion felt by those who must wait and hear the inevitable. The first half of the film does this with a delicate mastery: letters are written and received, tales from the front are shared and the devastating news of death is delivered.
Due to the accomplished work of cinematographer Caroline Champetier, there is a sweeping and absorbing style to Les Gardiennes. She has created a beautiful backdrop to which the story unfolds. The French countryside shimmers as we watch the workers go about their daily routines.
As the narrative progresses at a gentle pace, events begin to change the relationships between the family members on the farm. At first, it seems like they will combat whatever comes their way as a collective, defiant in the face of the atrocities. However, we are soon reminded that these were not simple times. With betrayal and deceit, Beauvois takes us closer to the likes of Animal Kingdom than All Quiet on the Western Front.
The actors all play their parts with an understated emotion. In particular, Nathalie Baye gives a stand out performance as Hortense: presiding over her family and subtly pulling strings with which she must eventually shoulder the consequences. Iris Bry, who had never acted in front of a camera before this role, is a tender and promising screen presence.
One of the most powerful scenes in the film comes as the villagers gather in church to remember those that have fallen. The priest prays aloud with an almost dejected tone: ‘Have pity on our wavering faith,’ he asks, leaving us rocked again by the unfathomable and shocking waste of life. TS