Has anyone else seen the Call my Agent episode where Nathalie Baye and Laura Smet, mother and daughter, are offered to do a film together and can’t imagine anything worse? In The Guardians, the quiet and subdued film by Xavier Beauvois in Official Competition at London Film Festival, the two stars are united on screen and gracefully lead their family and friends through the difficult patience-filled times that those who stayed back home during World War I had to endure.
1915. At the Le Paridier farm near Vienne, France, the women are the ones working hard to keep the land fertile, the animals healthy and the workers fed. However, Solange’s (Smet) husband and Hortense’s (Baye) three sons are off fighting, visiting irregularly and leaving dread behind them after they leave. One day, Francine (Iris Bry), a young orphan, talented singer and applied worker, is hired by Hortense and is asked to work on the farm for the whole length of the war.
I enjoyed the slowness of this film, with seasons palpably going by and the harshness of winters for example really leaving their emotional marks. However, the workers are committed and organised, and there is kindness and simplicity connecting them together. Everyone’s patience is needed, whether it is waiting for a son or lover to return from the front or during the harvest season – the scenes of them gathering wheat for days on end are fascinating. At the same time, technological progress means the introduction of machines at the farm, and Hortense’s decisions to use them make her an envied farmer in the area.
The central performance of Iris Bry is a revelation, with the actress bringing elegance and utter commitment to her character. I enjoyed how little we know about her, and how her strength of will are what we remember about her. As she faces injustice due to the fact that she has no relatives, we feel betrayed, as she is a loving and giving person. She is also a beauty, attracting visiting American soldiers and especially Hortense’s son Georges (Cyril Descours). After the end of the film, we hope Francine will continue to stand her ground and control her life. Indeed, we are shown an interesting side of the male psyche, their confidence mixed with their taste for conquest at that time, and wonder how it will transform after the war.
Nathalie Baye plays a woman with a lot of weight on her shoulders, and whose husband can physically no longer help her on the farm. After the death of one of her sons, her grief is contagious and I felt tears coming to my eyes thanks to, again, the patient filming of grief by Beauvois. Due to her absolute commitment to her family, Hortense fires Francine as soon as rumours of a love affair between her daughter and an American soldier spread, therefore separating Francine and Georges forever.
This is a beautiful story of solidarity amongst women but overall just humans during a difficult time for France. I suppose I was surprised at the goodness portrayed on the screen, do we see it so rarely in its pureness?