The gutting French WWI romantic-drama The Guardians convincingly examines homebound women sublimating love-sick anxieties (sexual, parental and sororal) into farmyard chores after their sons and husbands were sent to the Eastern Front. Director Xavier Beauvois and director of photography Caroline Champetier's picturesque landscape shots of women plowing fields and raking coals suggest why resourceful farmhand Francine (Iris Bry) prefers to chop firewood than to pursue a relationship with recently conscripted soldier Georges (Cyrils Descours). Francine, a nomadic outsider who lives wherever she can find work, prefers the immediate satisfaction she gets from physical labor. That's because she knows that everybody -- including stubborn farm owner Hortense (Nathalie Baye), Francine's boss and Georges' mom -- expects Georges to marry jealous frump Marguerite (Mathilde Viseux-Ely) instead, just because Marguerite's a local girl.
Beauvois (Of Gods and Men) and fellow co-writers Frederique Moreau and Marie-Julie Maille's focus on the subtle beauty of everyday chores pays off handsomely when Hortense's cheery neighbor Monette (Maille) catches her breath seconds after a local messenger tells her -- while she kneads bread dough with her daughter -- that her husband has been killed in action.
Months of unexamined emotions (regret, heartache and overwhelming uncertainty) cross Maille's faces as she -- looking everywhere but at the bearer of bad news -- stubbornly flicks gobs of batter off her fingers, as if trying to rid herself of her unruly feelings. These unassumingly powerful details make The Guardians one of the year's most affecting love stories.