Short Takes: The Guardians

(Xavier Beauvois, Switzerland/France, Music Box Films, Opening May 4)

In Xavier Beauvois’s latest feature, his understated, visually compelling storytelling unfolds with patient precision. Although The Guardians is set during the First World War, the battlefield appears only in an opening shot of corpses lying on dead leaves and in a dream sequence later on. The narrative takes on the rhythms of a peaceful countryside, where geese fly over fields and forests. Amid natural splendor, young men appear and vanish like ghosts.

Based on Ernest Pérochon’s 1924 novel, the film follows women who struggle to maintain a family farm, doing backbreaking work and buying new equipment while trying to envision life after wartime. Their emotions are set against somberly radiant landscapes and interiors, which DP Caroline Champetier captures as sensitively as she did those of Beauvois’s Of Gods and Men (2010), another story of an isolated community threatened by external forces.

As the matriarch, Hortense, and her daughter, Solange, Nathalie Baye and Laura Smet (Baye’s real-life daughter) contribute fine performances. In her film debut, playing Francine—a sturdy, incandescently appealing young woman Hortense hires to replace a male farmhand—Iris Bry is a wonder, electrifyingly conveying quiet depths of feeling.

Francine, it becomes clear, is an extraordinary character. Initially content to toil uncomplainingly, she is good-natured, devout, and ardent, but never an idealized or tragic figure. When her trust is cruelly betrayed, she refuses to be shamed. All of the women persevere in the face of hardship and grief, but Francine’s unshakable self-assurance evokes a bracing freedom from the past.