“The Sower” is a French parable (“Le semeur”) with hints of “The Beguiled” about it, with more romantic and less morbid intentions. A couple of compelling leads and an intriguing source of dramatic conflict help it come off.
Soldiers on horseback thunder into an Alpine village and round up every man in the place. The shouts of the men and the screams of the women fall on deaf ears.
“It’s a ‘state of emergency,’ madame,” the officer declares (in French with English subtitles). “We can do what we please.”
The women must band together to keep themselves alive– planting and harvesting, tending livestock, repairing buildings. A leaky roof in the granary could mean starvation, so they rally to patch it in a driving rain.
They manage. But in Marine Francen’s vivid period piece (based on Violette Ailhaud’s novel), this beautiful pastoral setting quickly feels like a trap to the younger women caught there.
The primitive isolation of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1851 France, the repression that followed his coup, means they have no idea what is going on or whether their menfolk will ever return. Those younger women, left without their beloveds or without ever having a beloved, have needs.
The older women, led by midwife/matriarch Blanche (Françoise Lebrun of “Julie & Julia” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) fret over their daughters’ plight. The younger ones, such as Rose (Iliana Zabeth) and the virginal Violette (Pauline Burlet , the young Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose”), get down to brass tacks.
They speculate. Might there be men in the valley below? Is every man in France dead or deported? What happens if, say, a peddler or journeyman farm worker passes through? They will have to “share” and share alike, they decide.
Violette dreams of a hunk “like Adam in the Garden (of Eden),” young, with “buttocks round like apples.” They’re all having such “dreams.” But wouldn’t you know it, that’s not exactly who shows up.
Enter the handsome traveling blacksmith. The entire village is so shocked, some to the point of alarmed — “We get by, we are armed” one blurts out at his suspicious questions — that they don’t tell him their men have gone and forget to interrogate him.
It’s the kids who do that. His name is Jean (Alban Lenoir of “Taken”), he’s 39. And he only has eyes for Violette. That can only mean trouble.
The grim gravitas of that mass arrest opening hangs over “The Sower,” anchoring it in the realm of tragic romance from the start. There’s romance, but none of this randy romping with a piper to pay later that “The Beguiled” delivered. In tone, think Terrence Malick’s “The Hidden Life,” or going back further, “The Horseman on the Roof.”
Jean has a backstory. Violette is naive, but her peers, and the older women — especially her mother (Géraldine Pailhas) — order her to cozy up to Jean. They have a shared love of books in common. Will she fall for him? Will she keep the pact the others bound her to?
Francen has made a film that revels in the gorgeous pastoral detail and the sheer loveliness of the leads, which compensates for a story (many hands adapted the novel) that lacks that heart-tugging oomph that carries good screen romances.
“The Sower,” now streaming on Film Movement+, Apple TV and elsewhere, still makes a diverting and picturesque romance that will have you dreaming of a French vacation and the lovely sights — human and otherwise — to be seen there.
MPAA Rating: unrated, sexual situations and nudity
Cast: Pauline Burlet, Géraldine Pailhas, Alban Lenoir, Iliana Zabeth and Françoise Lebrun
Credits: Directed by Marine Francen, script by Marine Francen, Jacqueline Surchat and Jacques Fieschi, based on a novel by Violette Ailhaud. A Film Movement release.
Running time: 1:38