Blu-ray, DVD; 2017; R for some violence and sexuality; Streaming via Amazon Video, FandangoNOW, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
Best extra: Interview with cinematographer Caroline Champetier
IT’S NEARLY impossible not to recall paintings by great French artists while watching “The Guardians” (“Les Guardiennes” – feminine form – in French). From Millet to Van Gogh, Manet to Degas, cinematographer Caroline Champetier nods reverentially to those painters, with exquisitely composed and lit scenes of farm workers, women engaged in household chores, and vast rural landscapes.
Directed by Xavier Beauvois (“Of Gods and Men”), “The Guardians” is set during the years 1916-1919, and centers around the Sandrail family, their farm, and the women left behind while the men have gone to the battlefield. Nathalie Baye plays Hortense, the widowed matriarch, and her real daughter Laura Smet portrays Hortense’s daughter, Solange. Solange’s husband and two brothers have gone off to the war, so the family engages a young woman, Francine (Iris Bry), to move in and help out. One by one, the men come home for brief visits on leave, with signs that the war is taking its toll.
But when the younger son, Georges (Cyril Descours), shows up, an immediate attraction takes place between him and Francine. And while the able and hard-working Francine has become an essential part of the farm and is well-liked by all, this complication disturbs the delicate balance of the household. Georges is virtually engaged to Solange’s step-daughter, Marguerite, and as a result, Hortense’s prejudices come to light. Francine’s past as a poor orphan makes her not only unacceptable as a mate for Georges, but completely dispensable, despite her exceptional talents, goodness, and intelligence.
Music Box Films presents this Blu-ray, which looks positively glorious throughout. As mentioned, scene after scene resembles paintings by French Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings, with intense saturated color and excellent fine detail, even in low indoor light. Skin tones always appear natural, even when surrounded by lush greens. The DTS-HD audio is quite good, as well, with sound effects realistic, French dialogue (with English subtitles) clear, and the lovely restrained score, by the great Michel Legrand, providing the ideal backdrop to this period saga.
Extras are ample and include an onstage Q&A with Beauvoir, which took place at New York Film Society of Lincoln Center; a conversation with the actor Nicolas Giraud, who plays the older Sandrail brother Constant, at VCU’s French Film Festival in Richmond, Va.; a brief visit with Legrand, who talks about composing for the film and plays a split-screen duet with himself; a folksy conversation with Gilbert Bonneau, the elderly amateur actor who plays the uncle and who is a genuine “peasant farmer”; a couple of brief audition screen tests and their resulting movie scenes; and a humorous outtake, in which Bonneau can’t remember his lines in a scene with Baye and Giraud.
The interview with DP Caroline Champetier, which also took place at the VCU festival, is especially interesting. “Guardians” was her sixth film with Beauvois, but their first digital shoot together. She notes the great deal of preparation it took to get used to the new equipment before shooting could begin.
Beauvois helped her prepare by encouraging her to look at early paintings by Van Gogh, which were directly influenced by Millet. She discusses Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven,” whose visuals were also inspired by Millet’s paintings of farmworkers. In choosing her palette, Champetier says, “I opted for colors that shake things up.”
She says that in the back of their minds was always the American westerns they both love, and adds that Hortense is a typical western movie character. She calls Iris Bry, as Francine, a “vision” right out of a Renoir. Champetier talks being fascinated by the difference in interior light, depending upon the seasons which, she says, were “part of the plot,” adding that the contrast between warm and cold colors “stir us emotionally.”
— Peggy Earle