Full of the sleepy rhythms of rural life, this beautiful-looking French drama has a powerful story of emancipation stitched into its period garb. It’s set over a five-year period that takes in the early days of the Great War and runs through to its shattered-but-hopeful aftermath in 1920, and while it barely ventures beyond the scenic fields of the Paridier farm in western France, it charts a world in flux with subtlety and grace.
With the menfolk away in the trenches, it falls to the women of the family to keep the farm ticking over. Steely matriarch Hortense (Nathalie Baye) brings in a hired hand (terrific newcomer Iris Bry) to help in the fields. The passing of seasons brings new-fangled machinery – technological leaps spawned by the war – as well as a gentle love story, and eventually American soldiers. Hortense’s married daughter fraternises with one of them, threatening scandal and prompting the film’s one dramatic plot turn.
Yes, there is a lot of farming – expect to learn more than you need to know about threshing – but in the spirit of seminal German mini-series ‘Heimat’, its spiritual cousin, there’s so much more going on amid its Auguste Renoir-like vistas. Director Xavier Beauvois uses slow pans and close-ups to show the toll war has taken on the villagers. For the women, we see how necessity brings real empowerment. It’s an aptly named film: they’ve become the hard-working custodians of a landscape that flourishes under their care. Who needs men?