How many films about World War I have omitted female characters, or else relegated them to the margins, reduced to a face in a worn photograph or the scrawl in a tattered love letter? An austere corrective to more than a century of under-representation, “The Guardians” tells the other side of the story, focusing on the home front and the women — characters so often defined in relation to male soldiers, as mothers, wives, girlfriends, and children — who shouldered the burden of keeping French farms running while the men were away.
Inspired by prize-winning French author Ernest Pérochon’s 1924 novel, director Xavier Beauvois’ emotionally devastating adaptation — which some may find as arduous as the wartime chapter it depicts — dispenses with a fair amount of the suffering to be found in the book, forgoing the contemporary tendency toward gritty, handheld realism in favor of a more timeless, almost painterly aesthetic. Set in the Limousin region of France, the decidedly unmanipulative drama features virtually no score (despite a music credit to Michel Legrand) or invasive camera tricks, relying mainly on a fine cast and the work of DP Caroline Champetier, whose stately widescreen compositions supply historically accurate tableaux that have largely been missing from the canonical visual record of that era.
The opening image, following an almost hallucinatory view of fallen soldiers in gas masks, is that of actress Nathalie Baye, guiding a horse-drawn plow through thick mud. It’s a startling sight, radically different from the liberated modern roles in which Baye previously appeared (in films like “Le petit lieutenant” and “Venus Beauty Institute”), but more important, a sharp contrast with the bucolic picture of French farm life most people hold in their heads — one in which stout men do such work seated atop tractors on sunny days.
Beneath a wiry gray wig and wardrobe of coarse, handmade clothes, Baye projects a spirit of duty-bound diligence as Hortense, the hardy matriarch of a traditional country farm at a time before heavy machinery made such labor less physically demanding (later, in a scene straight out of a Jean-François Millet painting, women cut the wheat by hand). Because the farm is too much for Hortense and distressed daughter Solange (played by Baye’s real-life daughter, Laura Smet) to manage on their own, Hortense hires a 20-year-old orphan named Francine (Iris Bry) to pitch in.
Compared with Solange, a restless wildflower who doesn’t know what to do with the time spent apart from her husband (one moment she behaves like a woman in mourning, the next she is caught flirting with the G.I.s who’ve set up camp nearby), Francine keeps a low profile. She tends to the animals, mends clothes, and pulls her weight without complaint. She may as well be invisible, which makes her more surprised than anyone when Hortense’s son Clovis (Oliver Rabourdin) takes notice of her while home on leave — which only serves to complicate the dynamic between the women, since Francine is not of their class. It helps the film’s cause that Bry has never acted on-screen before, allowing audiences to discover the young woman in the role — and indeed, she seems to blossom before our eyes as tragedy lends dimension to her character.
Assuming a somewhat tedious yet period-appropriate sense of pace, “The Guardians” spans nearly five years from 1915-20 — a time when sentiments were expressed at length, and by letter, before television and mass media penetrated rural homes, when daylight hours were spent either in work or in worship (Beauvois depicts the church as a place of somber solidarity with the other townfolk). Presented with the slow-motion rhythm of life on a farm, Beauvois and editor-co-writer Marie-Julie Maille do a remarkable job of compression, depicting the demanding routine without insisting on re-creating it in real time, the way directors like Béla Tarr or Chantal Akerman might have.
Despite being helmed by a man, “The Guardians” should also be viewed as a female-driven achievement, representing the culmination of a long, personal journey for risk-taking French producer Sylvie Pialat (“Stranger by the Lake,” “Our Children”). Together with the actress-driven ensemble and woman cinematographer, Pialat has honored an entire category of war heroes whose stories are seldom told. Where America has Rosie the Riveter as its poster girl for the women who pitched in during WW2, France can now point to “The Guardians” with pride.