In most films set during times of war, there are no quiet valleys, no grazing cows, few women, and very little farming. When depicted, these images are often meant to juxtapose seeming tranquility with near destruction. Here, they remain the untouched soil of “peace,” even as a ceaseless war rages around them. Set in a quiet corner of France, The Guardians is a study of women, often mothers, daughters, and sisters, on the home front during World War I as they combat the everyday and the uncertainty often brought with conflict.
Throughout the film, Director and co-writer Xavier Beauvois (previously, writer and director for Of Gods and Men) is mostly concerned with slowly passing us through the work and gossip of this countryside, as the film is a methodical and impressionistic painting of blue and green, often diametrically opposing those women who are present with those men who are missing. His collage of country folk features the very young, the very old, and women: the three segments of the population not allowed to fight. Between these still lifes, he rotates returning soldiers: husbands and sons. And between them: he splashes coats of technological farming progress, in the process, creating a calm war film.
The Guardians is a study of two characters: Hortense (Nathalie Baye) and Francine (Iris Bry). Hortense lives on a large farm, a farm once maned by her sons, Georges (Cyril Descours) and Constant (Nicolas Giraud), and her son-in-law, Clovis (Olivier Rabourdin), that’s now too vast for her. Francine is an orphaned servant, maid, and farmhand, hired by Hortense to assist with her coming harvest. The two make for a curious pair. Both are quiet, guarded even. However, they “express” these feelings through varied means.
Hortense is a mother hardened by war, often left wondering as to the fate of her sons, while overseeing her daughter Solange (Laura Smet). Nathalie Baye is fascinating as the cold, cutthroat, and sometimes doting mother. While Smet as Solange, a character waiting for her husband Clovis to return, is intense and determined. The two characters are given greater appeal as Baye and Smet are real-life mother and daughter.
Yet, it’s the arrival of Francine from the bank assigning her to Hortense, that is both a God send and an impediment. She’s the one “pure” character, with an alluring smile (as if there’s a secret hiding behind her teeth), a pale face angel with striking red hair. If Solange is Hortense’s daughter by blood, Francine is a daughter from circumstance. As she faithfully performs every duty left by Hortense, from plowing to chopping firewood, slowly earning her keep and, ultimately, the trust of her employer.
It’s in the moments, when Hortense, Solange, and Francine (and many other women) are working that Beauvois does most of the patient heavy lifting. As summer shifts to winter, and 1915 becomes 1916, then 17′, Beauvois carefully displays the tasks they perform. The director doesn’t solely view these outdoor chores as mere mundane existence. Rather they are the jobs typically handled by men and, as such, have an elevated pitch in this corner of French society, no matter the gender performing them. Because while the men are fighting, the everyday duties and survival of the country fall at the feet of these women. These women, who provide food for not only themselves, but for the countryside, and ultimately, for the men in combat.
And while the men rotate in-and-out from the front on leave, it’s the women who have to adapt. Adapt not only to a world of less men, but also less “man power,” as Hortense progresses through a mini-agricultural and industrial revolution (switching from mules to tractors for harvesting).
Nevertheless, it’s in these rotations (as Constant and Clovis both come home for short spells) that Georges arrives. Georges, one of Hortense’s two sons, instantly falls for Francine causing later turmoil.
It’s in the film’s fascination with this love affair where it loses its focus. The Guardians, clocking in at 138 minutes, begins to feel its run time. Rather than shifting to these two lovers, I would rather the focus have remained on the women surviving the war. I would rather Francine find her autonomy, in terms of her feminine power, from something else other than a relationship. In a film populated by women thriving despite the absences of their male counterparts, it feels odd that a woman would find strength through the arrival of a man.
Nevertheless, I still found The Guardians to be a captivating study. I found the women, especially Hortense (so tragically flawed as any other human), to be characters that I wanted to continually mine. Mine for their internal fears, doubts, and hopes in relation to the futures of their husbands, brothers, and sons. But mostly, I appreciated that this film wanted to know what these women thought, what they felt, that a story about women at home during a war was one worth telling.