As Frenchmen fought on the blood-soaked battlefields of World War I women were often left to maintain their family’s farm and ultimately their livelihood. To do so required backbreaking work tending to cattle, plowing fields and harvesting crops. “The Guardians” is a female-driven French drama offering a fresh wartime story of one such family.
Writer/director Xavier Beauvois highlights the strength and fortitude of a group of women toiling over their family’s farmland from 1915 to 1920. Renowned French actress Nathalie Baye plays Hortense. She’s the matriarch, fearing for her two sons and son-in-law on the battlefront but suppressing her concerns through arduous farm work. By her side is her daughter Solange played by Baye’s real-life daughter Laura Smet.
With the harvest season approaching Hortense and Solange search their local village for a farmhand. The only person they manage to find is 20-year-old Francine (earnestly played by newcomer Iris Bry). She’s quiet and unassuming but a capable and hard-working young woman looking for a semblance of ‘home’. Francine settles in and quickly earns the trust of her employers.
Beauvois puts an emphasis on the labor and the quiet determination with which these women work. This is one of several places where the period detail shines. Every chore, every tool, every technique looks and feels of its time. The same could be said with the way Beauvois visualizes the rural French countryside. Resembling Impressionistic brushstrokes he captures one stunning image after another. Yet despite the portrait-like beauty, there is still no doubt that it is a rugged land.
At first their strenuous day-to-day routine is only interrupted when one of the boys return on furlough. While the brief reunions are joyous, the scars of war are evident and each man has been changed by it. The effects begin to linger even after the men head back to the front making things tougher for Hortense, Solange, and even Francine, with everyone embracing the idea that “everything will be better after the war” but slowing losing their faith in those words.
The slow observant rhythms of “The Guardians” may catch some viewers off guard but hats off to Beauvois for not cutting corners throughout his 140 minutes. Based on Ernest Pérochon’s 1924 novel, the film is a canvas rich with painterly beauty thanks to cinematographer Caroline Champetier. It’s also a stirring World War I era story bathed in humanity and told through great performances, emotive faces and quiet communication. And then there is the subtly tragic story of Francine – the beating heart of the film and proof of an emotional narrative punch that may not be noticeable at first glance.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS