The Guardians, which unfolds between 1915 and 1920, follows the struggles of three French women working on a farm while the men are away fighting the Germans.
These women are the aging matriarchal farmer Hortense (Nathalie Baye), her married daughter Solange (Laura Smet), and their hardworking, uncomplaining young hand, Francine, who is hired by Hortense during harvest season but stays on to become a virtual member of the family. Francine is played by Iris Bry, who has a quiet but magnetic screen debut in Xavier Beauvois’ film.
When Francine enchantingly sings the song “Amours Fragiles” at a village dance, five men accidentally form a line a little way from the dance floor to watch her.
As the title suggests, “Amours Fragiles” is a lament for love’s fragility. It says that it’s easy to make promises when you’re in love, but that they prove empty when the slightest shock causes a loss of trust: “At the first crash, love is broken.” Not that the words of this “happy little tune” are to be taken seriously, because Francine sings it with a barely restrained smile. She’s not being ironic—she’s just someone who’s glad to have found herself, to have come through.
More than a love object
Some of the men in the line may be casually lusting for Francine—or ruminating instead on Verdun—but they are just as likely to be stirred by the song’s words and the cheerful way Francine is singing them.
One of the men moves toward the dancers to looks at her more closely. Each viewer must decide what’s on the man’s mind. The singer of the song is captivating, but much more than a love object. Beauvois must have thought the same about Bry: after Francine has finished the song, he daringly holds the shot on the actress for 17 seconds until she sweetly “corpses.” It is the second fourth-wall-breaking shot in the film and it announces a future star.
An innocent orphan at the start of the film and an untarnished woman of experience by the end of it, Francine endures not only love and heartbreak, but unjust treatment by Hortense. There is a Tess of the d’Urbervilles quality about Francine’s fate in The Guardians (which was adapted from Ernest Pérochon’s 1924 novel), but none of Thomas Hardy’s tragic irony—save the moment when Francine receives the unwanted kiss that causes Hortense to fire her and render her destitute.
Unlike Tess, though, Francine is determined not to be a victim of circumstances. She holds in her a belief that everything will turn out all right. Such is her bravery, patience, and fortitude that, as unsentimentally portrayed by Bry, she’s not, despite her red hair, a grown-up Little Orphan Annie, but an inspiring woman.
Everything is pleasing—rewarding even—about watching Bry, not least when she’s an isolated figure in one of the landscapes photographed in widescreen by Carolyn Champetier.
It’s too early to tell if Bry will follow in the footsteps of a great French actress like Isabelle Huppert, but the signs are promising.
A note on “Amours Fragiles”: The song was composed in 1899 by Alexandre Trébitsch, who wrote the lyrics, and Harry Fragson, who wrote the music. It is most associated with Fragson, an English entertainer immensely popular in Paris in the early 1900s for his imitations of French music-hall performers.
In 1913, Fragson suffered the same fate at the same age—44—as would Marvin Gaye: he was shot to death by his father during an argument. In The Guardians, Iris Bry delightfully rescues the song from its tragic provenance.
The Guardians screens at 6pm on Friday, March 16, as part of Rendez-vous With French Cinema. Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th Street, New York, NY 10023. Tel: (212) 875-5600. Standby tickets only.