It’s rare that a wartime-set film focuses primarily on the struggles of those left back home, but in The Guardians, the latest work from director Xavier Beauvois (Of Gods and Men), not only is that the case, but the film seems specifically designed to tell the story of generations of women left behind in provincial France during World War I. Based on the 1924 novel by Ernest Pérochon (and adapted by Beauvois and Frédérique Moreau), the film centers on the Sandrail family, which runs a mildly successful wheat farm, while also maintaining milk cows and a sizable vegetable garden. There’s never a shortage of work to be done, which makes it all the more difficult to keep up when the two brothers head off to war, leaving their mother, Hortense (the great Nathalie Baye), and Solange (Laura Smet, Baye’s real-life daughter), the wife of one of the brothers, behind to maintain the land known as Paridier farm.
Not knowing how long the men will be gone (those left behind are told this will be a quick war, but the film covers about five years), Hortense hires Francine (newcomer Iris Bry) as a much-needed extra pair of hands around the property, and as a result, the farm continues to be successful even while there’s a war going on. The extra money is used to buy actual mechanized farming machines, making those grueling hours pushing a plow or thrasher behind a horse a thing of the past. Deliberately paced to be sure, The Guardians eventually reveals itself to be more than a slice-of-life period movie, opening up its core with both high and low moments in the family’s life during the upheaval and emotionally charged Great War.
Considering how low-profile Francine keeps herself, the women of the house grow to care about her a great deal, and even one of the sons, Clovis (Olivier Rabourdin), falls for her when he’s briefly home on leave. Meanwhile, a growing number of Americans set up camp nearby awaiting their marching orders and they become friendly with the family, especially the married Solange, who begins to flirt with one of the men out of sheer loneliness.
In addition to being a smoldering drama, The Guardians is also exquisitely shot by cinematographer Caroline Champetier, who utilizes the region’s misty landscapes and surprisingly colorful natural surroundings to up the visuals. There’s not a single weak performance in the bunch, but I found myself genuinely curious about Bry’s organic, bordering on plucky, work here. At one point in the film, the story pivots to a degree and becomes more her story than the family’s, in part due to unexpected money that comes Francine’s way, as well as other news she discovers that alters her outlook and her future.
There’s nothing wrong with a film that isn’t in a hurry, especially when it has something to say and says it in a way that we rarely get to experience. The family left behind in any war is an important story, one that The Guardians understands is equally vital to the survival of a nation under siege. Despite its stakes, the movie never feels overblown as a drama, with each actor delivering measured performances for heartbreaking effect. Although there’s not much competition (at least in Chicago), The Guardians is easily the best movie opening this weekend.
The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.