There aren’t a great deal of films about the experience of women during the First World War, however the one that instantly springs to mind is Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles (A Very Long Engagement) - a drama about a woman who tries to find her missing fiancé. Even historiography about women in war time is a little thin on the ground, but its perhaps because more people are interested in the military history aspect than the social aspect.
Either way Les Guardians looks to rectify this by telling a story about how the women of France were left to tend the farms whilst young and able-bodied men went to fight against the German Imperial Army. Undoubtedly, women from all countries took this as their call to arms and kept their country going by raising to the challenge in spectacular fashion. Nowhere is this better seen than in Nathalie Baye’s Hortense and her daughter Solange who take control of the farm ,and with the help of technological advancements (the technological advancement correlates with each year the war continues), become the envy of others.
Yet despite this female outlook, much of these women’s lives revolve around men (even the major plot points are concerning their relationship with men). They greatly miss their husbands, brothers, sons and much of their lives are spent worrying over the men’s safety on the battlefield. It’s the not knowing that’s most painful, and the fear that an official will arrive on their doorstep, letter in hand, ready to give the bad news is a worry that never dies. They only get brief snippets into the status of their loved ones in the letters sent home or during the men’s brief periods of leave. This is mirrored by how male characters appear in scenes that are few and far between. Its only then do we get to know about how they are faring in warfare (each of the three male characters react differently to warfare).
This look into women’s experiences during wartime is heartbreakingly poignant and moving. You get to see how they suffered too with their loved ones being so cruelly taken away from them by a pointless war. There is one scene where Hortense watches her son walk down the garden path into the mist and you just know he will never been seen again. This poignancy is matched by the cinematography which shows a picturesque and beautiful region of France. It has a poignant feel because we’re in the knowledge that, within the same boarders, a region of France is no longer as beautiful as it once was.
The film’s melodramatic story isn’t matched by its unshowny nature. The film is relatively free of any major dramatic flourishes, but director Xavier Beauvois does employ a panning technique (which he also used in Of Gods and Men) where the camera picks up the facial emotions of the main players during a moving scene. This, coupled with a minimal score, means that the film relies on the performances to evoke an emotive response. They achieve this brilliantly, particularly Nathalie Baye and newcomer Iris Bry. Baye deserves most of the plaudits, superbly displaying Hortense’s devastation at her beloved children’s situation and her stoic (up to a point) bravery in the face of adversity.
Films like Les Guardians show that 100 years later there are powerful stories that have yet to be told.