The tension between battlefields and the bucolic is at the center of the new French film The Guardians directed by Xavier Beauvois.

Set in a farm in the French countryside during the First World War, the film focuses on family matriarch Hortense (played by Nathalie Baye) as she tries to keep her farm functioning in the absence of her sons who have gone off to war. To make up for the lost labor, Hortense hires a young woman, Francine (Iris Bry), as a farm hand. Francine proves to be an adept and hard worker. When one of Hortense’s sons returns on leave from the front, Francine begins an affair with him which is complicated by a misinterpreted incident involving an American soldier.

The pace of the film is meditative (some might say slow). As the recently reviewed Back to Burgundy dwelled on the mechanics of maintaining a wine vineyard, The Guardians examines and lingers on the toil of working on a farm. Both films also share a similarity in the fact that their cinematography is particularly strong. The cinematographer in The Guardians was Caroline Champetier and the composition of many shots of the French countryside resemble the designs one might encounter in classical painting.

Baye gives a compelling performance of a matriarch who out of necessity must be alert and controlling. In her screen debut, Bry as Francine offers an interesting portrait of a woman who is somewhat elusive, strong and when needed, is self-contained.

There is an understandable and constant theme in the film of dreading the notification of the death of a son or sibling in the war, a plot element that can be encountered all the way from Gone with the Wind to Saving Private Ryan. In fact, except for a somewhat enigmatic ending, I am not sure that there is much in the film that is thematically new.

The Guardians has a certain timeliness as this November will mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. Aside from the beautiful photography of the French countryside, the film, like the war itself, is sobering.