Xavier Beauvois's The Guardians opens on a shot of corpses strewn about a World War I battlefield as a mist—perhaps mustard gas—gently hangs in the air. The soundtrack is silent as the camera surveys the carnage with an eerie calm. Then, the year 1915 flashes on screen, and Beauvois cuts to a long shot of two women—Hortense Sandrail (Nathalie Baye) and her daughter, Solange (Laura Smet)—plowing a field with a quiet nobility that brings to mind a Jean-François Millet painting. As the juxtaposition of these two sequences illustrates, Beauvois is fascinated by the concurrence of disparate realities—that men could be killing each other in horrific and brutal ways in one part of France while, in another, women are tilling soil and harvesting wheat.
Adapted from a 1924 novel by Ernest Pérochon, The Guardians is fundamentally about the gradual creep of modernity into even the most isolated corners of France. Never didactic or presentist in his approach, Beauvois explores the changes wrought by WWII with sobering sensitivity. After her two sons, Georges (Cyril Descours) and Constant (Nicolas Giraud), are sent off to battle, Hortense is left with the responsibility of managing the family farm. Solange provides all the help she can, but Hortense soon realizes that she needs a permanent farmhand to keep the place running. Finding that all the local men are either off fighting or already hired on at other farms, Hortense takes on a woman, Francine (Iris Bry), to help her out. A luminous and slightly enigmatic young redhead, Francine turns out to be a sturdy, reliable worker, performing her duties adeptly and without complaint.
It captures the pictorial beauty of old-fashioned farm life, but it doesn't romanticize hard labor for its own sake.
Throughout The Guardians, Beauvois is captivated by the everyday chores of running a farm, according great weight to even the humblest of tasks, like feeding horses or loading potatoes into sacks. No mere pillow shots, these scenes of rural labor form the very substance of the film, recreating a bygone era in stunning detail. Shot on digital video in the glistening natural sunlight of the French countryside, The Guardians captures the pictorial beauty of old-fashioned farm life, but Beauvois is careful not to romanticize hard labor for its own sake. Rather, the film shows the realities of farm work—its difficulties as well as its dignity—without lapsing into empty nostalgia.
Eventually, the film lurches slightly toward melodrama as Francine strikes up a romance with Georges while he's on leave from the army. Hortense disapproves of the relationship because of a bias against Francine's humble origins. But Beauvois never seems completely invested in such twists and turns, maintaining an air of quiet reflectiveness even as the narrative turns to sexual intrigue, false accusations, and a surprise pregnancy. Beauvois is less interested in the moment-to-moment thrills of the story than in the rippling effects that the characters' actions have in the long run.
Hortense at one point cruelly fires Francine and, later, cuts her off from Georges. And yet, in a kind of coda, the film ends with Francine, her hair now cropped into an au courant bob, singing on stage in a club. As she finishes, her ever-stoic face breaks into a broad grin, the first real smile we've seen her give in the entire film. It's an indelible and surprisingly cosmopolitan note on which to close such a ruggedly pastoral film, one that suggests that Francine's story doesn't end when the credits start to roll—rather, it's only just beginning.