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Fertile Soil: Xavier Beauvois Discusses "The Guardians"

An interview with the actor-director about his new film about a trio of French women on a home front farm during the First World War.
Nathalie Baye and Xavier Beauvois
The strength of women left alone to fend for themselves is the communal focus of actor and director Xavier Beauvois’s The Guardians. After directing Of Gods and Men (2010), Beauvois’s excellent neo-western set among French monks in Algeria, we lost sight of this under-estimated director—his next was a quasi-comedy I’m dying to see about ruffians stealing Chaplin’s corpse—though it was a delight to encounter him earlier this year before the camera as one of Juliette Binoche’s many love (and sex) interests in Claire Denis’s Let the Sunshine In. I am very glad indeed that Beauvois is back in the director’s seat and in the international spotlight with The Guardians, adapted from an obscure 1924 novel by Ernest Pérochon about a struggling farmstead on the home front of the First World War, and one of the exceptional films of the year. Beauvois, whose collaborations are impeccable (his regular cinematographer, Caroline Champetier, has worked with Godard, Rivette, Lanzmann, and Carax; his score is by The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’s Michel Legrand), is the kind of effortless filmmaker who reminds audiences that each edit can (and should) be adroitly chosen and timed, that the framing of an image can be beautiful without being adorned, and whose direction of actors keeps performances curt but moving.
Over the course of the war years, the inhabitants of The Guardian’s money- and manpower-strapped farm—its sorrowful, conservative matriarch (Nathalie Baye, a quiet force), who grieves for her three fighting boys, her married daughter (Laura Smet) yearning for her captured husband, and a newly hired farmhand (screen debutante Iris Bry, captivating)—carry with them the subtle but deep weight of daily struggle precariously conflated with the war’s immense psychic force. The tensions of returning men, of fitful love between a son (Cyril Descours) and the farmhand, nightmares of war, visiting American soldiers, and the pressure to make money and keep a family intact, may all seem dramatic, but the film’s sense of time is that of the farm and the provinces, and Beauvois’s technique is carefully restrained so that melodrama is avoided, yet tragedy can still subtly grow. A gorgeous pan across the faces of those working on the home front—themselves fighting to subsist, to be happy, and to keep to themselves and yet keep together—as they break for lunch during the harvest crystallizes in wheaty sunlight The Guardian’s superb, patient beauty. Beauvois has successfully yet modestly re-created a world and allows his cinema to rove within it, finding the people on history’s sidelines who think, feel and work as much as those who fight with gun and steel.

NOTEBOOK: Each film you choose to direct always surprises me in subject. How did you find this book from the 1920s and what attracted you to the home front of the war in the provinces?
XAVIER BEAUVOIS: The producer Sylvie Pialat introduced me to the book. She had a grandfather who had a very small book collection but he had all of Pérochon's books, and then when she met Maurice Pialat, who then became her husband, he was a great fan of Pérochon and also had all his books. Because this author wasn’t very well known she was charmed that Maurice knew of him. So Sylvie gave me the book, and I really like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which I see as a war film. Of course it’s a different war, the war of Algeria, but it shows the life of the people who stayed behind and the experience of the pregnancy of the alcoholic father who comes back from war.
NOTEBOOK: It’s interesting that you bring up Maurice Pialat, because one of the things that came to mind while watching this film was Pialat’s 1971 television series La maison des bois, which is also set in the countryside during the First World War. Were you thinking of this series while making The Guardians?
BEAUVOIS: Yes, but not directly. Everyone else’s work stays within you and it becomes a cultural heritage that you digest over time. It comes out at a moment you wouldn’t necessarily expect. For example, one movie that really informed my subconscious is The Deer Hunter for the first part with the wedding and the hunt. It’s a masterpiece and it fed my inspiration.
NOTEBOOK: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is an interesting comparison point, because when Jacques Demy made that film he couldn’t really talk about the Algerian war in cinema.  So he made a film not about the war but about the sadness and sorrow at home while a war is occurring. That was a war that was happening when that film was being made, so I’m curious about The Guardian's more distant time period. How did you find yourself, personally, inside this world and a war that is much farther from us?
BEAUVOIS: I read a lot. I read all of the encyclopedias, I wanted to know everything and learn about the weapons of the time. I read letters from soldiers from the front. At the time mail was free, the French government had hired 400,000 workers just to deal with the mail, and people were writing thousands of letters, they were writing every day. So there were thousands and thousands of letters from the front that I could read. I do this with all of my films—if I make a police film I work with police officers; for Of Gods and Men, I worked with monks. And on this I consulted a historian and who told me about farm life. It was very important not to make any mistakes about the period, but at the same time I didn’t want to make a historical film. I wanted to make the viewer feel in the moment, like a fly on the wall observing it at the time, but not making it seem like a reconstruction.
NOTEBOOK: This is one of my favorite things about the film: it’s very restrained and unadorned. It doesn’t have the gloss of false history. It’s a film with not a lot of words but feels very lived in. How do you work with your actors to build these characters who have lived for ages in this isolated farm?
BEAUVOIS: Country folk are strong silent type, so from the onset that was very little dialogue. I like to refer back to François Truffaut, who said that shooting a film is like a critique of the screenplay, and then editing a film is like a critique of the shoot. So in the editing we actually cut a ton of dialogue. Nathalie Baye was kind of freaking out about all the dialogue being cut, but I said to her, "country folk don’t speak so much so don’t worry, it’s fine." In terms of how they inhabited their characters—well, they took courses. They learnt how to work the land, how to sow, how to drive cattle. The location is super isolated, it’s also really desert-like. We had a farm that we rented for over a year for multiple seasons, and then it became kind of a studio where you can follow your inspiration.  If the schedule says we’re shooting in the kitchen today, we could decide to shoot outside in the rain because it was raining that day and it’s okay. Whereas when you’re shooting in the city you have to follow a schedule. You can’t follow that inspiration of the moment, and so on set, on the farm, we were able to follow the schedule of a farmer who could rise and set with the sun and live that pace of life.
NOTEBOOK: The theme of this movie and as well with Of Gods and Men is the beauty but also the problems of an isolated community. Did you find that shooting a film separated like this also had these problems of isolation, or was it a greater creative space for creative freedom?
BEAUVOIS: At that time in France, 80% of the work was farm work. That is a huge difference from now. Isolation then was not bad, it was just the norm, and I have a house in Normandy and I love that isolation. The city is where I find I have more stress or problems. That’s what I find problematic. So the issues of the country—you can even hear the hum of the city [at Toronto International Film Festival] now! I can’t be here for three days, it would drive me nuts. In terms of creative process, that isolation is fertile soil for sure. If you shoot in Paris, all of your technicians will live there and they go home at night. But when you’re shooting in the country everyone is together—they live together and sleep and eat together in hostels and hotels, and that contributes an incredible amount to the group cohesion and it just makes it a more serene shooting experience than when you have to part at the end of the day. Still, we wanted to keep an eye people’s family lives so that by shooting early on Fridays people can go back on the weekend and spend time with their families. But the country aspect, it would be my dream to shoot here in Canada—in fact we even rented a cabin in the woods for after the festival, because of course you can’t come to Canada without taking advantage of the country. I brought my fishing rod. It would be a dream for me to shoot in the forest, but of course many filmmakers would find it a nightmare to have to leave Paris and to shoot in the country’s isolation. In fact, I even bought my neighbor’s house in Normandy because I used to have fantastic neighbors, and I was so concerned I would have crazy neighbors next I bought the house. As Chaplin says, the greatest luxury is silence. 
NOTEBOOK: In the film your decoupage is so precise that I was struck whenever there was any kind of stylistic flourish. For example, the tracking shots of the farm work and two long panning shots, first in the classroom, then also during the lunch break in the fields. I’m wondering if how much you envision your images. Are your camera movement in the screenplay? How much of the technique found once you’re in the space working with the actors?
BEAUVOIS: I never storyboard my movies. I very much follow my mood, the weather, and of course there are other things that will affect my inspiration in the moment. But some shots have to be planned: the harvest scene has to be choreographed, so we planned that scene far in advance because there’s just so much movement with cutting the wheat. But I would say I’m not the intellectual type, I’m an instinctive type. I think that movies are like a baby and you have to listen to your baby, and today is kind of like a birth because it’s the first time that we’re screening it. Some filmmakers don’t listen to their films and just need it to be how they planned it. One example of how I listen is that I didn’t know that Iris could sing, so I just added a scene in the moment. Another thing that you can’t plan for is the light, especially in the country you don’t control the light—it’s nature. We have to scout or locations very carefully and you have to go out at 5 in the morning and see if this scene we can only shoot from 10 to 11 AM, and after that it’s no good. Some filmmakers are sticklers for their plan, but I like to listen to my actors. They all inhabit their characters and they come with suggestions—I'm trying to make a film that is smarter than me; they say I just want to "vampire" other people's intelligence! If I make a film that I already saw in my head, if I make it exactly as my vision was, that wouldn’t be as interesting. I want to be surprised by my own film. I have to say also that there’s a great freedom that we have as filmmakers in France that you don’t have in the United States—you can’t improvise on a script because a producer signed for this one synopsis. But If I’m in France and I’m shooting with Deneuve and Belmondo, and I don’t like the shot and I think that we should go shoot this by the lake, we can just hop into a little car with three or four people and a camera, and we go and it’s not a problem. But that’s absolutely impossible in the U.S.—that’s why you see French filmmakers come to the United States and they go nuts because they’re so frustrated. 
NOTEBOOK: Is that one of the reasons why you work with Caroline Champetier? I always think of her as a very agile cinematographer to work with natural light and in unusual situations.
BEAUVOIS: What I love about working with her is that she is incredibly talented, but she’s also fast. She can think in a moment to use a white sheet on the ground as a reflector. Of course, she can do more complex things, but it’s important that she is fast and she is flexible because you want it to look good, everybody wants it to look good, but you don’t want to spend 3 hours on a set up for it to look good. In terms of framing on the other hand, we butt heads a lot. I get the final say on framing, I plan it in advance and we never agree. I like to shoot my actors head on, she likes to shoot them from the z-Axis or on a diagonal. She likes to shoot really close, and I say, "we’re not doing TV here, so I think we should be a little further." We always go back on forth on that, and of course I get to win because I’m the director [laughs]. Sure the light is right, but in terms of framing I’m the boss.
NOTEBOOK: At the beginning, I thought The Guardians was an ensemble about many characters, but the film almost evolves to almost be a dual between Francine and Hortense. A young orphan with no family, for whom money is less important than happiness, and an older woman who through the war needs to build a fortress of safety and wealth for her own family. Do you see these two characters as almost having opposite attitudes towards living? 
BEAUVOIS: Absolutely, I even add that at the end you see Francine singing at the ball and it’s such a departure from life on the land. You can imagine her maybe having a career as a singer in such a place of joy as compared to the farm life. You can imagine them as opposite, but at the same time they’re almost like mother and daughter. Yet, there are misunderstandings and I do believe that by the end that they are rivals.

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