Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Les Gardiennes (The Guardians; 2017) ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 17th October, 2020

Much of the worst fighting of the First World War took place in northern France, as armies moved slowly back and forth across absurdly short distances, the fields churned up and slashed with trenches, as the daily toll of bodies rose. But well away from the Front, life in rural France carried on much as it had for centuries, except that women had stepped in to do the work previously carried out by men, on top of their usual farmyard duties. That is the context for Xavier Beauvois’ poetic film Les Gardiennes (available via BBC iPlayer for the next three weeks). Most of the action takes place on a farm now under the charge of a grey-haired matriarch, Hortense (Natalie Baye), her ineffectual husband being too old and weak to do much other than producing home-made eau de vie to serve occasional visitors. Their two sons are away at the War — apart from short leaves — and their son-in-law is a prisoner-of-war in Germany. But Hortense manages things with the aid of her daughter Solange (Laura Smet) and a vivacious and capable orphan jill-of-all-trades Francine (Iris Bry). Unfortunately Francine falls in love with one of the sons, Georges (Cyril Descours) when he is home on a visit and Hortense — who has plans to marry Georges off to a younger girl of more suitable heritage — sends Francine packing. She persuades Georges (who has consummated the relationship) that Francine is a slut. Fortunately there are kinder souls in the community who come to her aid, and her travails — including being pregnant with Georges’ child — make her a stronger and ever more independent person.

This intense drama is set against a pastoral backdrop of lyrical beauty somehow enhanced by the greys, ochres and pastel blues of both the buildings and the characters’ clothes. We see the farm in its different seasons with their accompanying activities from ploughing and sowing to harvesting, much of this without any distracting conversation so one is drawn into the scenes. There are some remarkable, slow panning shots that are painterly in their execution, often showing the women deep in thought. Premonitions of modernisation come in the form of a basic combined harvester and a tractor that the family is able to buy, but tradition is instilled in Hortense, including her attitudes to social class, even if this will destroy happiness, including her own. But by the end of the film it is clear that change is coming.

2 Responses to “Les Gardiennes (The Guardians; 2017) ****”

  1. Graham Smith said

    I went straight to BBC iPlayer and searched for this and it cannot be found.

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