The Guardians (Les gardiennes)
France (2017) Dir. Xavier Beauvois
Stories from World War I continue to appear, adding new perspectives to improve our understanding of what life was like during this period, even when fictionalised. One area seldom explored is the women left to run the home whilst the men were fighting in the trenches, until now.
1915 and widower Hortense (Nathalie Baye) is left to run the family farm since her two sons Constant (Nicolas Giraud) and Georges (Cyril Descours) have been conscripted into the army. The only help Hortense has is her daughter Solange (Laura Smet), whose husband Clovis (Olivier Rabourdin) has also been drafted, whilst Solange’s elderly father-in-law Henri (Gilbert Bonneau) is unable to do too much due to his age.
Desperately needing help, Hortense hires Francine (Iris Bry), a young orphan initially on a short-term contract but her work ethic is impressive enough to see her employment extended. The sons and Clovis occasionally return home from fighting, but when Georges comes back he becomes smitten with Francine and they begin an affair that upsets the tight knit family spirit on the farm.
Based on the 1924 novel by Ernest Pérochon, a man whose own personal history during both wars make for some interesting stories, The Guardians is more than a run-of- the-mill bodice ripper, instead it takes a moment to salute the effort of the women whose indomitable strength and hard work kept things moving while the men were off fighting for their country.
Given when it was written, this makes it sound incredibly progressive and quite feminist in putting the women in the forefront of the story and swapping the supporting roles to the male characters. Whether this was Pérochon’s intention or from his own experiences serving in the war (which ended when he suffered a heart attack on the front line), this shift in dynamic is not certainly not a gimmick to win over female readers.
In keeping with the alternate perspective of the war years, there is only one scene to feature any fighting and that is in a nightmare that haunts Georges on one of his visits home. In it, he has a Luke Skywalker moment when he kills a German soldier in a gas mask, which he removes to reveal his own face underneath. Since most of the trauma Georges experiences is relayed through his quietness and occasional tetchiness, this is comparatively extreme.
This is not a case of downplaying the horrors any surviving soldiers endured, we see it every time they return home, physically and emotionally wounded. Yet, within the context of this tale these are catalysts for the drama that unfolds among the women. Clovis is captured and imprisoned by the Germans, leaving Solange distraught but when the Americans arrive a few years later, she finds herself distracted by her desires.
Elder brother Constant, a teacher in the village (like Pérochon), is killed on the frontline, his body unable to found to be returned home for a funeral, upsetting Hortense, but the need to keep strong overrides her anguish and grief and she continues to put her energies into the farm. However, this also dims her outlook and becomes deeply protective of her family, to the detriment of them and others.
Meanwhile Georges unwittingly ruffles some feathers with his wooing of Francine from being unaware that a old family friend Marguerite (Mathilde Viseux), who has known since she was a child, is in love with him and Hortense had earmarked her a Georges future wife. Francine is persona non grata in Marguerite’s book and Hortense is equally dubious about the relationship, but takes an unusually cruel route in quashing it.
Amidst the broken hearts, ill-advised subterfuge, and clandestine bonking, all of which is portrayed in a sombre and deliberate manner befitting the mood and conventions of the period, Xavier Beauvois sticks to the same formula of his multi-award winning Of Gods And Men by keeping the pace measured and the atmosphere sober and soundtrack free, whilst focusing a lot on the quotidian life on the farm.
Pushing the run time to 129-minutes, Beauvois presents and almost meticulous look at the work that goes on by the women and some of the elder men, from the milking of the cows to the ploughing of the fields, mostly manually until Hortense buys an early version of combine harvester, and so-on. It might not a dominant facet of the plot but with each scene playing out in real time they soon settle into longueurs mode.
The main story is told over five years, taking two-year leaps forward at first before a sprint to cover the last three years. This deliberate approach is applied to everything, even the drama. Voices are seldom raised, tension is barely palpable, and emotions don’t run high, as everyone is so adept at suppressing their feelings. The only time they get animated is when Hortense confronts Solange about her actions in Clovis’ absence.
Yet this might be one of the better scenes as mother and daughter are played by real life mother and daughter Nathalie Baye and Laura Smet (in a cruel twist of fate, this film was released on the same day Baye’s ex-husband and Smet’s father Johnny Halliday passed away). This comfort with each other allows the scene to be quietly fraught and genuine in the mutual disappointment of the discussion.
Making a similarly emotive start to her acting career is Iris Bry, who, like her character, grows throughout the film becoming more confident and comfortable in front of the camera, tackling the heavier drama with ease as it progresses. Of the many emotional experiences of Francine, it is near the end when she cuts her hair that is Bry’s crowning moment, making this simple scene feel like her reaching maturity.
Handsomely filmed, subtly acted, and due its credit for pushing home front women into the spotlight, The Guardians is a good film unfortunately buried under too much tedious padding to hit hard with its drama . For patient cineastes only.