Because it was over 100 years ago and the only media that was available was newspapers and maybe some rudimentary film footage, World War I sometimes gets bypassed when it comes to the most world-changing events of the 20th century. The context of how the war started and progressed during its earliest months seems to be particularly lost to history. In a new French drama, the early months of the war are examined through the eyes of four women who were among the millions that were left behind to run things while the men in their lives went to battle.
Opening Shot: An opening graphic describes the situation: September, 1914, in the village of Saint-Paulin, France. The German invasion has been going on for a month, and French forces are trying to keep the Germans from overrunning Paris.
The Gist: As soldiers march in formation down a road, Marguerite de Lancastel (Audrey Fleurot) is driving from Paris to Saint-Paulin, and her papers show that she’s a sex worker, allowed to ply her trade in town. A truck passes through, driven by Jeanne Charrier (Romane Portail) and Louis Compoing (Noam Morgensztern), a police detective, examines what’s in the back; he’s looking for a murderer. He discovers Suzanne Faure (Camille Lou), the woman he’s looking for, hiding under the floor of the truck bed, but Jeanne, an experienced smuggler, takes off before he can do anything.
In the meantime, Mother Superior Agnès (Julie De Bona) is dealing with the French military setting up a hospital at her Saint-Paulin convent. She encourages a little girl, Lisette (Léwine Weber) to leave her mother’s farm, which is on the front lines, and stay at the convent, but Lisette refuses.
Another woman in crisis is Caroline Dewitt (Sofia Essaïdi), put in charge of the Dewitt family’s truck factory when her husband Charles (Grégoire Colin) joins the army as an engineer. It leaves her alone, living with her distraught daughter Madeline (Stacy Grewis Belotti) and openly hostile mother-in-law Éléonore (Sandrine Bonnaire). The situation in the factory becomes dire when all the workers are picked up by the army for desertion.
As Marguerite moves into the brothel and services customers, most of whom are soldiers, she tries to find out where the soldiers’ camp is. She manages to get the information from one soldier she gives a hand job to in the brothel’s saloon.
Compoing catches up to Jeanne and Suzanne, and Jean gets shot in the process; Suzanne manages to get the wounded Jean to Lisette’s mother’s farm. Suzanne, a nurse, finds out about the hospital at the convent, and runs to get medical supplies, carrying Jeanne’s papers in case she’s stopped. While she’s gone, German soldiers battle French soldiers on the farm’s grounds. Jeanne returns to the farm to see bodies everywhere; Agnès, checking up on Lisette, finds Suzanne, who tells the nun that her name is Jeanne Charrier.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Even though Women At War (Original title: Les combattantes) is about WWI, it still felt analogous to World On Fire, which takes place during the opening months of World War II.
Our Take: Cécile Lorne, the creator of Women At War, accomplishes what she needed to do in the first episode, which is introduce audiences to the four women at the core of the series’ drama, and then uses the second half of the episode to start intertwining the women’s lives.
One of the things that Lorne doesn’t hesitate showing is the horrors of war. There’s more than enough blood, or holes blown through people’s heads, to show that, even 109 years ago, the people on the front lines see things that scar them for life. Of course, she also shows German soldiers killing defenseless women and children; it’s not a surprise that a French production might go in that direction, but it seemed unnecessarily harsh, especially for the first episode. Then again, that is also part of the horrors of war.
So far, the show is pretty straightforward and serious, but as the women become more intertwined, we may see things get a little more soapy. We’re not sure, for instance, how Margeurite and Caroline know each other; it’s alluded to in the first episode but not explained. And how long will Suzanne be able to hide from Compoing? The way these questions are answered will determine if the drama in Women At War takes itself seriously or not.
Sex and Skin: We mention the hand job, and there’s other glimpses of the workers at the brothel doing what they get paid to do. And the final scene (described below) has some surprising skin.
Parting Shot: Agnès, bringing Suzanne into town after finding her on the farm, goes to help a naked man they find wandering through the woods. He drops to his knees, embraces the nun and sobs. She slings her wrap around him.
Sleeper Star: Stacy Grewis Belotti has a very emotional scene as Madeline says goodbye to her father; it’s a bit old-fashioned and schmaltzy, but the scene worked because Belotti did a good job portraying Madeline’s unyielding sadness.
Most Pilot-y Line: After Marguerite comes back to the brothel after her reconnaissance mission, her minder tells her “this isn’t a hotel.” Marguerite snaps back, “I’ll catch up.” That was almost as disturbing as Marguerite being told she’d have to service 20 clients per day.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Women At War starts off a bit dry, but by the end of its first episode, viewers can see that the drama will start to be amped up, beyond the violence inherent in war.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.