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The Guardians (2017)
Les Gardiennes

Directed by Xavier Beauvois

5 stars

France, 1915. Hortense (Nathalie Baye), elderly matriarch of a farming family, struggles to keep her farm going while the men are away at the front. Her two sons Constant (Nicolas Giraud) and Georges (Cyril Descours) and her daughter’s husband Clovis (Olivier Rabourdin) help with the farm work during their infrequent leave, but the farm is desperately short-handed. Hortense hires an orphaned young woman, Francine (Iris Bry), to help with both house- and field-work during the 1916 harvest. Francine works hard and is kept on after the harvest.

During his leave, Georges meets and falls in love with Francine, inciting the jealousy of family friend Marguerite (Mathilde Viseux). Then comes the news that Constant has been killed.

Xavier Beauvois’s 2010 film Of Gods and Men showed how superbly this director can portray the tension of those who must wait for their fate (earning a Grand Prize from Cannes in the process), and he has done something similar in this marvellous new film. Here, the tension is just as palpable but different in character. These women have been given no choice but to wait. The sense of the war as something relentlessly threatening (hinted at whenever mist appears) is echoed by the relentless nature of the agricultural processes: something to try and control but which might consume the outnumbered workers.

Hortense will do anything to preserve the farm and the way of life of her family even if this means, finally, traducing her own interests and values. Baye is superb in the role, managing to convey fragility as well as hard-as-nails strength, often at the same time.

But the real revelation is Iris Bry as Francine, in a transcendent performance (although all of the principal cast are wonderful). She has resilience and determination that are no less than Hortense’s, but in Iris they are combined with (and provide the energy for) sweetness and love. Though Iris does not know it, she represents the potential of a new France, the nation that may emerge after the war: less class-ridden, and certainly less wedded to the land.

Hortense on the other hand, in her desire to preserve what was there before, is shown to be preparing a barren inheritance – bereft of love and offspring. The farm survives, but is changed. Mechanisation and women saved it, and it can never return to what it was. Her double tragedy is the loss of her child, and the atrophying of what he fought to return to.

The Guardians is a magnificent movie, beautiful to look at, involving and intelligent. Go and see it.

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