Rogerebert.com had me at, “like a series of Monet paintings come to life.”
This was their description of The Guardians, a beautifully photographed chronicle of rural life in the French countryside. It is Xavier Beauvois’ respectful look at the roles women played at home while their men were off fighting in the First World War.
It’s 1915 and matriarch Hortense and her daughter Solange (played by real-life mother and daughter) are left to tend the Paridier family farm in western France. Both of Hortense’s sons and Solange’s husband are at the front, and the women are struggling with the workload.
Hortense reluctantly hires an outsider, the beautiful orphan Francine, who instantly impresses with her hard work and cheerful attitude. We are reminded how back-breaking farm life was early in the 20th century, and yet cinematographer Caroline Champetier makes something beautiful out of their unglamorous daily drudgery.
As years go by and the war rages on, new equipment allows the women to triumph over the land and they acquire newfound independence, yet emotions are stirred, especially when the men return from the front on short leaves.
Hortense comes alive when her favourite son Georges is home on furlough, but a dramatic shift occurs when the hunky Georges, although informally betrothed to a local girl, takes a keen interest in Francine. Also, local gossips are suggesting that Solange is selling herself as well as the farm’s homemade brandy to the American soldiers. Impulsively, and fierce in her determination to protect her family’s name, Hortense takes action.
Fiercely acted yet quietly emotional, The Guardians recognizes the sacrifices of those on the home front. The takeaway is that war affects us all negatively; it horrifies those who go and devastates the ones that stay behind.
In French with English subtitles, The Guardians plays Saturday, Oct. 13 at 5 p.m.