Nathalie Baye as Hortense Sandrail
Iris Bry as Francine Riant
Laura Smet as Solange
Cyril Descours as Georges Sandrail
Gilbert Bonneau as Henri
Olivier Rabourdin as Clovis
In Xavier Beauvois’ fierce, compassionate drama, the first world war casts a terrible shadow over a farming community. The gender divide of this movie, and its whole point, are clearer in the original French title: Les Gardiennes, the female guardians, the women who worked the land in France during the first world war. This richly compassionate, fiercely acted and beautifully shot period drama is about the second conflict, the battle of wills on the home front, as its characters struggle to maintain a family farm in the Deux-Sèvres region of western France.
A way of life, with its Hardyesque seasonal rhythms of sowing and reaping, is minutely, sumptuously depicted. But all the time in the background – in the letters home, in the muttered hints of the grim-faced men on leave and their shellshocked dreams – is the horror of war. Those seasonal rhythms come to include regular visits from officials with telegrams.
The Guardians is directed by Xavier Beauvois, terrifically shot by cinematographer Caroline Champetier, and adapted by Beauvois, Frédérique Moreau and the film’s editor Marie-Julie Maille from a 1924 novel by Ernest Pérochon, the teacher, Goncourt-winning author and first world war veteran who in 1940 refused to collaborate with the Vichy regime, had his books banned and finally died of a heart attack brought on by the stress of daily Gestapo harassment.
Nathalie Baye gives a performance of effortless authority as the widowed Madame Hortense, the matriarch who must impose her will on the running of the farm. Her daughter Solange (played by Baye’s real-life daughter Laura Smet) is her most important worker, given that her father-in-law Henri (played by non-professional Gilbert Bonneau) is too elderly to do much. Smet plays Solange as a passionate woman who, like her mother, has accepted the patriotic duty of reining in her emotions. Her husband Clovis (Olivier Rabourdin) comes home from the front, angry at the hypocrisy and cruelty of war. The Germans, he tells them all, are just like them: workers, husbands, fathers.
This is not quite what Solange’s enlisted brothers have to say on their visits home. Constant (Nicolas Giraud) is a decorated officer, a teacher in civilian life who, on an appearance in the classroom, listens with faintly pained reserve to his pupils eagerly reciting in his honour a poem attacking the “Boches” (Krauts). Most importantly, there is Georges (Cyril Descours), who is perhaps his mother’s favourite: she comes alive in his presence as she does not with Constant, and it is Georges’s longed-for visits that put into motion the film’s tragedy.
Hortense has just hired a new worker, Francine, played by newcomer Iris Bry, who instantly impresses with her hard work and cheerful attitude. Georges is clearly smitten with the pretty, charming Francine; they agree to write to each other when he returns to the front, and watchful Hortense is not displeased with this turn of events. She can imagine this young woman as a permanent addition to the household and even as a daughter-in-law. But Francine is an outsider, and the courtship enrages Marguerite (Mathilde Viseux), a longtime intimate of the family who had regarded herself as his intended. And then the Americans turn up: swaggeringly handsome young soldiers who are the source of terrible sexual tension and cause Hortense to make a dreadful mistake. Francine is to become a living victim of war.
The beauty and the pathos of the film are vivid in every frame. Most unbearable is the shot in which Constant says his farewells before returning to the war and walks away from the farm up a shady country lane that leads back to the station: he turns and waves, framed by the trees, his brave, open face lit by a heartbreakingly good-natured smile. The terrible omen is obvious.
Then there is the remarkable scene in which Georges takes Francine into the forest, which is part of the family’s estate – a magical place made even more mysterious by the standing stones there, which, incidentally, are a further reminder of Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Stonehenge. The stones’ presence imbues that whole place with something profoundly moving and erotic, and the woodland itself consecrates the love between Georges and Francine.
The years are flashed up on screen as the time goes by: the harrowingly important years of 1914 and 1918, but then, without any great fanfare, we get 1919 and 1920. There is no war’s-over scene with dancing in the streets – or farmyard. Hardscrabble life goes on as it went on before the war, and the widowed Hortense was in any case used to running things without a husband. Beauvois concludes the film with an affecting, melancholy song. It is the music of regret and acceptance.
Review by Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian