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During World War I, life for women in the French countryside changed forever. They held down the farms while their men headed out to the battlefield. Women who already worked hard were suddenly called on to do much more, while at the same time missing and worrying about their husbands, brothers, fathers, and lovers.

Matriarch Hortense is a strong woman who knows how to keep a farm. However, with her sons Constant and Georges gone, there is just too much for her to do. Her daughter, Solange, tries to help, but Solange has her own extra work to tend to since her husband, Clovis, is also gone. With the encouragement of the family, Hortense hires Francine, a young woman who grew up in an orphanage, to be a farmhand and help with household tasks. Francine is capable, hardworking, and honest. She makes a place for herself in the household, becoming someone that Hortense and Solange depend on and care for.

These women are the guardians of the land. They work hard to survive in the face of challenges. They find solace in each other. They attend churches filled with other tired, lonely women and a few old men and children.

But they are also the guardians of family and name. And when Hortense senses her family’s image starting to crack under the stress, Francine suddenly finds herself an outsider again.

As The Guardians shows, the women cannot guard the old ways forever. Old codes of conduct fade as war changes lives. Hortense finds satisfaction in bringing new, profitable technology to the farm. Francine finds freedom and independence in her strength. And visiting American soldiers provide a masculine presence that is both exciting and dangerous.

This gorgeous film, with its lingering shots of field and sky, is infatuated with the verdant land. It is also, as my daughter put it, “Jane Austen in World War I France.” Women like Solange, who come from good families and marry well, have assets and prospects; for women like Francine, with no family name and no fortune, very little separates them from poverty and ruin. One wrong move from women in either situation can spoil their futures forever.

The Guardians celebrates the heroic strength of these women while the men of their families are being tested in a different way. At the same time, the film shows how the women’s personal weaknesses—just like the men’s—bring on larger problems.

Rated R for some violence and sexuality, this film shows that war leaves no one unscathed—pride, vanity, loneliness, and naiveté leave each woman vulnerable to her own worst impulses. The devastating impact of war goes far beyond the battlefield; the impact of class prejudices is also devastating. The way sin snakes its way through God’s handiwork is painful to watch. Yet director Xavier Beauvois presents the struggle to work the land, the appreciation of the achingly beautiful creation, and the women’s desire for connection and companionship in ways that are fully realized and deeply human.

On disc now. (Music Box Films)

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