Xavier Beauvois’ The Guardians (Les Guardiennes) is a beautiful period recreation of a time of change for women and society in rural France during the First World War.
Country Lifeby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Almost too self-consciously beautiful, The Guardians creates a picturesque trope of rural France during World War I. The menfolk are away on the battlefield and it’s left to the women to carry on with the hard labour of preserving the farmland – and the heritage that goes with it.
Nathalie Baye is grey-bunned matriarch Hortense, living on the farm with her extended family. Needing help with the heavy work now her sons are at war, she recruits young Francine (impressive newcomer Iris Bry), who turns out to be kind, willing, amenable, generous and capable of working as hard as any man.
As the war years slowly roll by one after another, indicated by onscreen titles, we see the beauty and rhythm of the changing seasons, and the routines and hard toil of ploughing and sowing necessary to keep life – and crops and animals – going. In a gloriously lit summer scene of harvesting, the camera pans very slowly along the line of women cutting the wheat by hand, piling it into heaps and loading it on carts. And in the kitchen, as Francine starts to be treated as one of the family, we see traditional country crafts being handed on as Hortense teaches her to make the embossed pats of butter the farm produces.
The film is as women-focused as its title suggests. The men of the family are either absent, killed in action or, if they return home on leave, shell-shocked and emotionally damaged. And while they are absent, life moves on, and, interestingly, the women move into the future independently as they start to mechanise the farm work in previously unthought-of ways.
When he briefly returns home on leave, Hortense’s younger son Georges (Cyril Desccours) is smitten by Francine’s beauty and innocence and, via a magical day in the woods, leads her predictably into a love affair.
But the temporary presence of American soldiers upsets the delicate balance of village life – we see their clumsy attempts to help with threshing – and also, unwittingly, the relationships in Hortense’s family. In her role as guardian of the farm and family, she makes a morally indefensible decision. But Francine’s inner strength is not to be underestimated: as the world changes, she turns the innocent folk songs she sings at the farm into the chansons of experience.
The Guardians is directed by Xavier Beauvois, terrifically shot by cinematographer Caroline Champetier, and adapted by Beauvois, Frédérique Moreau and the film’s editor Marie-Julie Maille from a 1924 novel by Ernest Pérochon. It’s an absorbing insight into history and deeply moving.
The Guardians screened in the 61st BFI London International Film Festival and is released on 17 August 2018 in the UK