A war movie where the battles are fought far from home but resonate deeply with those who’ve been left behind, The Guardians (Les Gardiennes) marks a satisfyingly low-key return to form for French auteur Xavier Beauvois (Of Gods and Men, Le Petit lieutenant).
Straightforward and simply told, with emotions running just below the surface and then boiling up at key moments, this femme-centric drama — about a group of women holding down the family farm while the men are away at the front — is perhaps a tad too long and restrained for mainstream consumption. But it proves that Beauvois still masters his uniquely classical brand of filmmaking, coaxing strong performances out of veteran Nathalie Baye and newbie Iris Bry, who makes an impressive screen debut.
Adapted from the 1924 novel by Ernest Perochon, the narrative covers several years in the life of the Paridier farm in rural France, beginning in 1915 and running through the end of World War I. With husbands, sons and brothers all shipped off to combat, it’s up to the matriarch Hortense (Baye) to run the show, plowing the fields and reaping the crops with the help of her daughter, Solange (Laura Smet), and a brand-new farmhand, Francine (Bry), whom she brings on during the harvest season.
Soft-spoken and diligent, Francine, who was raised an orphan, gradually becomes a vital part of the Paridier household. After spending several months there, she’s hired on full-time and more or less adopted by Hortense and the rest of her clan, who band together to keep the place running as the battles wage on in Verdun and elsewhere.
Beauvois devotes significant screen time to depict the women furrowing, seeding, harvesting and grinding wheat, with regular D.P. Caroline Champetier (Holy Motors) capturing the pastoral setting in richly composed widescreen. If the abundance of agriculture may be too much for some tastes, the film subtly reveals how farming methods grew increasingly industrialized over the years: Just as the armies of the Great War employed modern weapons like tanks and airplanes for the first time, so the Paridiers begin to use combines and tractors to yield more crops with less labor.
While breaking her back in the fields, Francine’s finds her life suddenly transformed when one of Hortense’s sons — the dashing young Georges (Cyril Descours) — returns home on furlough and quickly takes a liking to the new girl. Temporarily forgetting his combat experiences, Georges becomes smitten enough to pursue her both on the farm and when he’s sent back to the front a week later, engaging in a lengthy correspondence that brings the two even closer together.
Yet as much as Francine seems to be in love, she’s fallen for a traumatized soldier who, along with Solange’s husband, Clovis (Olivier Rabourdin), and Georges’ older brother, Constant (Nicolas Giraud), has suffered a significant amount of shell shock. Rarely do the men speak of what they saw on the battlefield, but you can tell by their expressions or by the way they wander around like ghosts — or from a nightmare Georges has at one point — that returning home hardly alleviates their pain.
Even more jarring is the way Beauvois shows how Hortense and the other women react to bad news about their loved ones, which regularly comes in the form of a local official appearing on their doorstep. In the film’s most powerful sequence, Baye simply looks up, sees the uninvited guest and knows that one of her boys is dead, and her simple reaction shot speaks volumes. In a later scene, which happens after Francine has been forced off the Paridier farm for reasons both silly and significant, the matron she’s now working with receives a similar visitor, and Francine solemnly takes the woman’s daughter out for a walk.
Such subtlety is not all that common in today’s movies, and The Guardians can seem so discreet and episodic that it takes on the guise of a telefilm whereas it’s really something much stronger: a serious-minded and, in its closing reels, rather powerful portrait of women getting by in a world where all the men are either gone or gone mad.
As quiet as it is, the drama is punctuated by the graceful melodies of New Wave composer Michel Legrand (Contempt), whose score is used sparsely but poignantly, as well as by songs that Francine sings to pass the time. Bry, who has never acted in a movie before, has an alluring presence whether she’s humming a lullaby, churning butter or lying in the arms of her lover. By the final scene, which plays like a homage to Stanley Kubrick’s WWI classic Paths of Glory, she movingly shows how the young orphan has grown into a free woman, braving the long war and emerging victorious.
Production companies: Les films du Worso, Rita Productions, Pathe, Orange Studio, France 3 Cinema, KNM, Versus Production, RTS Radio Television Suisse
Cast: Nathalie Baye, Laura Smet, Iris Bry, Cyril Descours, Gilbert Bonneau, Olivier Rabourdin, Nicolas Giraud
Director: Xavier Beauvois
Screenwriters: Xavier Beauvois, Frederique Moreau, Marie-Julie Maille, based on the novel by Ernest Perochon
Producers: Sylvie Pialat, Benoit Quainon
Director of photography: Caroline Champetier
Production designer: Yann Megard
Costume designer: Anais Romand
Editor: Marie-Julie Maille
Composer: Michel Legrand
Casting director: Karen Hottois
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Sales: Pathe International
In French and English