The series – its French title is Les Combattantes – was filmed in the photogenic Vosges mountains of eastern France and is set around the town of Saint-Paulin (also the name of a semi-soft French cheese, coincidentally) which finds itself perilously close to the front lines as Germans invade.
Fans of the best French cop show Spiral will be pleased to see red-haired Audrey Fleurot as Marguerite de Lancastel, a prostitute from Paris who now shows up nearby and seems overly interested in the whereabouts of the French troops. She is joined by Julie de Bona as Agnès, a superior of the local convent, and Camille Lou as Suzanne Faure (picture below), a registered nurse who illegally performs abortions, and Sofia Essaïdi as Caroline Dewitt, who married into Dewitt’s truck factory. Essaïdi also recently starred in the hilariously violent crime thriller overdose (on Amazon Prime).
The show contains elements of romance, mystery, melodrama and even soap opera, but the looming threat of war acts like a blowtorch, bringing the emotional temperature to boiling point and pushing the characters to greater and greater extremes. Trouble brews in the Dewitt household when Caroline’s brother-in-law Charles (Grégoire Colin) tries to strike a lucrative deal with the government to manufacture grenades instead of trucks, but Caroline trumps him by selling General Duvernet (Tchéky Karyo, of Baptiste fame) that they can do a lot more good by converting their trucks into ambulances. In a major #MeToo push, the women from the local brothel step up to serve as ambulance drivers. However, all of this drives an embittered Charles to seek terrible revenge, not least because it could mean being drafted into the military.
Meanwhile, Marguerite pursues her mission to spy on the French soldiers, but the suspicion that she is an agent of the Germans turns out to be unfounded. In fact, she’s trying to rescue her long-lost son Colin (Maxence Danet-Fauvel, pictured below), the only thing of value left from their disastrous past. Colin – is that really a French name? – is a graduate of the prestigious Saint-Cyr military academy, but that doesn’t mean he’s incapable of drawing disastrously wrong conclusions about Marguerite.
Marguerite may not be a spy, but there is at least one other character who is, luring the French military into a diabolical trap by giving them false information about what the Germans are up to. women at war delivers some hectic and fairly graphic combat sequences and some ghastly scenes in the field hospital, although the tactical mind of the French often seems absurdly absent.
In an attack on a German chlorine gas depot, for example, no one would take gas masks with them, although fussy pedants might be inclined to point out that gas was not used until 1915. As for the French troops’ bone-headed technique of advancing up a path through the woods in a heap makes them easy prey for German machine guns. Also, the show creates the odd feeling that the entire war is being fought within a short truck ride from Saint-Paulin, where everyone goes out, has a quick fight, and then comes back.
Amidst all this there is plenty of room for a tragic story about an abusive priest who preys on a naïve young nun at the convent. This impales Mother Agnès in the horns of a brutal dilemma, as she herself has not quite kept her vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
It’s not exact war and peaceeven if it can be a little Les Miserablesbut women at war is a comfortably bingeable watch and has stiffened her tendons with all-round strong performances from her superb female cast. The men, it must be said in fairness, pale in comparison.