Women’s Work

THE GUARDIANS (Les Gardiennes - original title) (15) 2018, 138mins, France, Directed by Xavier Beauvois, with Nathalie Baye, Laura Smet, Iris Bry

This is a war movie, set on a farm in France; the First World War that is, and the film is based on a premise that as the men are away fighting, the women do the work on the farm. This was no doubt true; passé the land army etc. etc. The truth is women do a great deal of the work on farms anyway, in war or out of war. So that isn’t really news. The men may be away fighting, or doing a job for ready cash, or just drunk and disorderly. The work on farms has to be done, come what may. So it normally falls to the women. This was my experience at least. Women milked the cows, rode the horses, drove the tractors (or in this case, oxen), brought in the harvest, year after year. They just got on with it. Not necessarily dramatic fodder for a film you might think.

The Guardians takes the view that a farm, particularly a French farm at this period, has interesting aesthetic potential. Farm work, seen from a safe distance, has a long distinguished career as a metaphor for one thing or another, particularly if performed by women. Wordsworth seeing a girl at work in a field for instance (The Solitary Reaper), or Jean-François Millet painting three women picking up grain (The Gleaners) which, when the painting was exhibited in 1857, was felt to be too knowingly redolent of the scaffold, that the revolution was simply too recent for bucolic labour to be rendered with such sympathy. (I grew up with a large print of this painting. My sister bought it  and left it in my parents’ farmhouse for mysterious reasons. To me it was a very realistic depiction of the labour called ‘picking up potatoes’, 12 hour days bent over in fields putting potatoes in sacks; very, very hard, back-breaking work, mostly done by women.)  Neither poet nor painter exhibit any apparent surprise on seeing women at this kind of work.

The Guardians seems a metaphor for something. The question is just what. It’s certainly very pretty to look at. There’s lots of pumping of water, summer and winter, ploughing with oxen, chopping of wood, cutting of corn (or wheat), even charcoal burning, which is made to look like something you might do on farm holiday, not a gruelling, dirty job which destroyed the health and lives of its practitioners. And because there’s a war going on, bad news arrives at regular intervals, falling with abandon on high and low, farmer and labourer, without fear or favour.

Occasionally men do intrude. The men fighting return on leave at different times. There are old men past fighting age. There are American soldiers, without enough to do and so can cause trouble. But the men are somehow irrelevant, or beside the point. The point really is the work. The women do the work and the camera lingers. That the film is beautiful is simply an expression of a simple idea that work can be beautiful. The women aren’t cyphers, or metaphors, requiring the agency of men to become actual. They simply are, through the agency of work. The film is about the women interacting, working, as themselves.

This is a film about the reality of women working. In fact, when one woman turns from work to a man to seek fulfilment, trouble starts. She ultimately has to turn back to her own resources, herself, to get her life back on track.

In fact, Wordsworth again, recollecting this film in repose, ie. sometime after seeing it, it’s remarkable just how unusual it is: a film where the women just are. They aren’t complimentary to men, present as some kind of background or field on which the male roles are presented, on which the men can act or be actualised. They work, they interact and that is kind of it. And it looks good. Yes, sometimes it can seem a little too like a re-enactment, a history documentary, a bit too clean perhaps. But the aesthetic is making a point: women as themselves in the world can be pleasing, attractive, beautiful. They don’t need men. They can even be, in the word of one character, observing of another, ‘elegant’.

The Guardians is a very beautiful film, beautifully realised. The women are a metaphor for themselves. They are their own meaning and need no other.

Paul Corcoran