The Guardians: Women During Wartime

After becoming the toast of the art house world with his 2010 feature ‘Of Gods And Men,’ and his not so acclaimed follow-up ‘The Price Of Fame’, Xavier Beauvois returns in peak form with this elegant, leisurely paced drama set over five years during World War I, telling the story of the women in a family forced to take over the running of their farm, while their sons and husbands have departed to the battle front.

The veteran French actor turned director recovers the qualities his former work was praised for with another portrait of a close-knit community facing life-changing challenges. As the Trappist monks sent to Algeria in ‘Of Gods and Men’ went on with their lives under the threat of fundamentalists, the women in ‘The Guardians,’ facing the hardship of war, take over the everyday tasks of a farm, playing their part on guaranteeing food supplies and their own livelihood.

They are led by the matriarch Hortense, played with laudable restraint by Nathalie Baye, who realizes that herself and her daughter Solange (Laura Smet) on their own won’t be strong enough to keep the labour intensive demands of the land’s agricultural cycle going. She hires a young girl from the village to lend a hand -newcomer Iris Bry who gives a show-stealing first performance as Francine- who soon proves her worth at making the farm thrive again. Their success, though, will be met with jealousy and gossip around the village, which in turn will lead Hortense to a tough dilemma in order to preserve the good name of her family.

‘The Guardians’ stands out for its not so common depiction of the role rural women played during wartime, portrayed as the unsung heroines who kept everything in place while soldiers were fighting for their country, which gives the film a particular cultural relevance in this times of feminist struggle for equal and fair gender representation. Through the occasional visits of their men, we know about their difficulties at the front, putting their sense of purpose and courage to the test when facing demoralization and, respectively, being injured, taken hostage or death.

Beauvois’ film is also elevated by the painterly quality of its shots, filmed in the French Limousine region. The director points in particular at Van Gogh’s masterpieces created under the influence of Millet as his main visual reference when he recreates many scenes of everyday rural endeavours, from the ploughing and tilling the fields to the moment of harvest, with striking luminosity and sense of composition. And yet, despite The Guardians’ length and unhurried presentation of events, those scenes don’t overstay their welcome and contribute to create a strong sense of place that graciously complements the storyline.

What makes everything work beyond its classic aesthetic sensibility, though, is how well the dramatic scenes are chosen, considering the complexity of the different characters and their circumstances in this free adaptation of Ernest Pérochon’s 1924 novel. The director manages to convey the many situations of loss, love, jealousy, hope and despair with rather affecting precision, wisely choosing what to show and what to elide. The use to letters to make us aware of how the relationships between women and their absent men are unfolding adds an extra literary element to a narrative that leaves plenty of room for reflection.

‘The Guardians’ is one of those rare works whose crafts and visuals have as much weight in the final result as the screenplay itself. That balance has become the trademark of Xavier Beauvois’ reassured authorial voice, succeeding on crafting one of the best observed, satisfying and original period dramas in recent memory. ★★★★

The Guardians is released in the UK on August the 17th.

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