Xavier Beauvois’ Les Gardiennes (The Guardians) depicts the lives of the women left behind to guard the home front in rural France during the First World War. Based on Ernest Perochon’s 1924 novel, matriarch Hortense (Nathalie Baye) struggles to manage the family farm alone with her daughter Solange (played by Baye’s real-life daughter, Laura Smet) and adoptee Marguerite (Mathilde Viseux) while her sons are fighting on the Front. As the harvest approaches, the family take on maid Francine (Iris Bry) from the Public Assistance board, who quickly shows herself to be a diligent worker and almost becomes part of the family before a wartime romance goes awry.
Les Gardiennes is a film that is characterised above all else by silence. Set amid breathtaking scenes of French countryside, the characters are painted as solemn figures silently working the fields, rarely giving voice to their pain or fear. Although the sparse use of music and dialogue makes the film’s portrayal of emotion beautifully subtle, it does leave the characterisation feeling a bit thin. It also means that Beauvois’ film relies heavily on what the audience itself brings to the story, rather than offering anything new to the fairly well established narrative of women keeping the home fires burning during the First World War.
The central failing of this film is that it struggles to decide exactly how to re-contextualise its source material for a twenty-first century audience. The film plucks out several elements of Perochon’s novel, such as female emancipation, the industrialisation of agriculture, and the devastating effects of shellshock, without dwelling on any long enough to make them meaningful themes. By choosing to make a romance between Francine and one of Hortense’s sons the central plot point, Les Gardiennes largely passes by the relationships that might have developed between four women who painstakingly labour together on the farm day after day, season after season. I was also left with the uncomfortable feeling that the film’s moments of passion were less a depiction of young women throwing caution to the winds and embracing their sexuality in trying times, than a male director romanticising the very real risk of sexual coercion these women face.
Despite the poorly resolved screenwriting, the performances of the females leads are excellent. Beauvois has sought performances that convey an extraordinary level of emotion through gestures such as the wringing of hands, the tightening of a face, or a downcast gaze. With a number of cleverly executed shots, this is a film that would be well worth seeing for the beautiful cinematography and outstanding acting alone.
— Felicity Brooks