It feels like far too long since French writer and director Xavier Beauvois’s bucolic and earthy filmmaking graced the screen stateside. After his 2010 Cannes prize-winning Of Gods of Men mesmerized art-house audiences, Beauvois switched gears with the quasi-comedic The Price of Fame, which has still yet to receive American distribution. He’s back in fine form with The Guardians, a rich ensemble drama that fascinatingly regards how a group of women in the French countryside keep a farm alive during World War I.
I spoke with Beauvois in March when he was in New York for the film’s screening at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema. Our discussion ranged widely, touching on subjects as varied as the film’s feminist core and Beauvois’s connection to improvisation.
We’re living through the centennial of World War I. Do you think people are doing enough to recognize the causes and the sacrifices made?
I think that, yes, they’re doing a lot in France. In fact, we do more in France to commemorate people who died 100 years ago than we do to commemorate the people who are being killed by Assad and Putin in Syria right now. And it’s already seven years of war in Syria. There’s been poison gas, children massacred, systematic rape—and yet, that’s not talked about as much.
We haven’t really recognized that because it’s easier to think about war in the past tense. By looking backwards at the victims, are we neglecting looking at the causes and allowing history to repeat itself?
I don’t know who said it, but there’s an expression that says, “History teaches us that people learn nothing from history.”
The first shot of the film is of gas masks on a battlefield, then a quick cut to a title card establishing that we’re in 1915. Why begin the film this way?
By opening the film that way, I’m showing you what was happening in the frontlines. But this isn’t a film about the frontlines. It’s a film about what took place behind the lines. It’s butchery, what you’re seeing in the war. What I wanted to focus on was happening behind the lines.
In the absence of men, the women in The Guardians have to band together to take care of all the farm work. They spend a lot of time together, but the camaraderie is short-lived and the ties are far from binding. They’re no closer at the end than they were at the beginning. That’s not a typical uplifting war narrative, so what drew you to it?
I think it’s because this is a story that takes place in an abnormal context. You have people who are meeting each other who would otherwise never come into contact with each other. A person like Francine would never have met a George or Hortense. She would have never had a child the way she did. It’s almost like an out-of-time period because it’s wartime.
Can you expound on how the film either is or isn’t related to feminism and what drew you to making a film so heavily rooted in the routines and experiences of women in wartime?
It’s a film where the women are the guardians—not only in the countryside and rural areas, but also in the cities—and are for the first time running trains, working in factories, making tons of ammunition for guns. All of them proved themselves quite capable of doing [these tasks], but when the men returned, the women were sent back to their old positions. There’s a macho element involved here because a lot of the men who came back were annoyed. They came back and found out that the women had been better at managing the money, that they had been better at investing the money, and in many cases they bought more land, so the men came back to more property than they had left with, and they had more equipment. All in all, the women had proven themselves a lot better at doing this work than the men. This reminds me of the man who developed the whole concept of microloans. These loans are given only to women, and the reason is that he knows that by giving the money to women, they’re actually going to invest it. The men will take the money and drink or gamble it away, and they’ll have nothing to show for it.
We’ve gone through a number of names and cultural perceptions of what we now call “post-traumatic stress disorder,” but during the time that The Guardians is set it was called “shell shock.” How did you go about finding a period-appropriate treatment of the subject?
I don’t really deal with it here because I’m focusing on when the war was still going on, during the fighting in 1915, and this is something that very often did not show up until after men came back for good. But I read an interesting statistic that said that for every American soldier killed in Afghanistan, two soldiers subsequently commit suicide after coming back. There’s protocol now in France that when soldiers are returning from combat, before they go back to their homes, they have to spend three days in a luxury hotel as a way of decompressing. It’s a real problem. I’m really interested in the Normandy landings. If you look at a film like Saving Private Ryan and see veterans now in their 80s, they still get very emotional and tear up when they talk about the death of their comrades when they were only 20.
You depict time in a really fascinating way. The war years move slowly and flow comfortably together, then post-war sections are shorter, choppier, and a little more jarring. Was that built into the book, or were you deliberately contorting time for the temporal medium of film?
It’s more a reflection of what this kind of rural life was like. It’s something that’s timeless. People would wake up with the sunrise, go to sleep when the sun sets, and you’d still have to go outside and milk the cows. It’s something that never changes, and the slowness in that part is a reflection of that. It’s what their peasant farmer life was like. Also, for women at the time, their hands were always active—never empty. If you had a woman who went out to feed the pigs, she’d come back bringing in some logs for the fireplace. If you had a woman cooking, during that time, she would also be sewing.
You talked recently about liking the French production style of being able to improvise on a script beyond the synopsis provided to get financing. Were you making any significant improvisations on The Guardians?
Francois Truffaut said, “The film is the critique of the script, and the editing is the critique of the shooting.” I think that, for me, a great deal happens during the editing because it’s the real tool for making the film. For example, I improvised a lot with the singing, because I didn’t know the actress I had chosen was able to sing at the time that I cast her. So once I knew that, I was able to incorporate it into the film. And I also felt the beginning of the film was much too talkative, so I started taking out pages and pages of dialogue, just replacing them sometimes with simply a look or a glance.
There’s also the factor that we were really using a single set. If you’re using a single or even double set, you have a lot more leeway in terms of how you schedule your work and how you can improvise. It’s not so much improvisation as inspiration. During the shooting of The Guardians, if it rained one day, we could do something else and come back another day. You don’t have that kind of ability to work if you’re doing it [outside of a single set].
And I think there’s a difference if you’re working on this single set. Everybody is living in the same area, often in the same hotel. They’re eating together and doing things together, so you really develop this feeling of being together on a kind of adventure. If you’re back home at a studio, everyone goes back home with their family, then they turn around and come back the next day. There, you have much more of a sense that you’re just working. Meaning there is less of a sense that you are participating in a group adventure.
Translation by Ellen Sowchek