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Will it Snow for Christmas?

(Y aura-t-il de la neige Nol?, Sandrine Veysset, France, 1996)


 


It is sometimes said that the greatest or the last taboo in cinema is not sex or death, but work. The mundane, back-breaking chores of daily life forms the very core of Will it Snow for Christmas?, Sandrine Veysset's astonishingly masterful feature debut.

It is set on a farm in the south of France. We see a mother (Dominique Reymond) – that's all she is ever identified as – and her seven children, who all pitch in and help with the work. We see them cart things, pick things, wash things. It's an unexpectedly hypnotic spectacle, even though there's nothing especially dramatic or catastrophic going on. In many ways, Veysset reinvents for herself the neo-realism of various national cinemas – like Italian neo-realism, or John Grierson's British documentaries, or some famous French films of yesteryear devoted to working life in the provinces.

In the middle of all this working, whining, hanging-out and recovering, day in and day out on the farm, Will it Snow for Christmas? snakes around to its true subject: family life. We come to realise that we are looking at a slightly unusual family unit. The father (Daniel Duval) of the seven kids shows up, a barking, unlovely, stern, rather cold and fearsome figure. But then he goes just as abruptly as he came, and we figure out that he's not married to the mother – in fact, he has an entirely separate family located somewhere else, and he's constantly commuting between the two.

At this point, Veysset's film reveals its debt to the ragged, disconcerting, heartbreaking movies of Maurice Pialat. Her style and approach, though, display a bit more grace and serenity than Pialat's tormented slices-of-ordinary-life. There are very few moments of explicit confrontation or drama in this story – but, very gradually, things start to become complex, knotty ... Or, more precisely, it's our understanding of what we're seeing that becomes more complex and less judgmental. Early on, for instance, most of us would be willing to write the errant father off as a bad-guy patriarch. But later scenes reveal the tenderness and the erotic spark that keep his bond with the mother going. And in a similar way, we come to understand why this woman chooses to stay in this depressing, miserable, frustrating, impossibly difficult situation, what makes it all bearable for her.

Will It Snow for Christmas? is, in many respects, a bravely unfashionable film. I've come across one Australian review deriding its ode to the passing seasons as a lyrical cycle of life, its paean to the indomitable strength of motherhood and a woman's lot – not to mention its high tolerance of intensely politically incorrect behaviour, like showing a woman who chooses to stick around in an emotionally abusive situation. But this is just not a contemporary, political, ideological movie in that sense. It's about some force of life, some sliver of hope grasped in the middle of a hard, hard situation where no one ever simply escapes or re-writes their life-script.

Another local reviewer described this movie, in the course of a highly positive review, as an anti-film. There's some point to that if you think of a film – a normal, conventional film – as one with a lot of plot and driving action and completely readable, motivated characterisation. But, personally, I would not choose to describe Will it Snow for Christmas? as an anti-film, because it is extraordinarily cinematic. It has that formal quality which most essentially defines cinema for me: a fine, minute, palpable tension linking one shot, scene, look or gesture to the next. There are moment's in Veysset's direction – just a turn of the mother's head or a bolting movement of a child or small movement forward of the camera – which I found completely riveting, electrifying.

The filmmaker Claire Denis (Beau Travail, 1999) has spoken of how completely physical she finds Veysset's film: not only in what it shows – life and labour and the seasons – but also in the way it shows this, its palpable closeness and intimacy, its fierce eye for even the smallest site of intrigue happening inside these small, modest events. Veysset is something of a cagey, canny minimalist, in the school of Chantal Akerman or Robert Bresson: she painstakingly accumulates quiet detail, until she can finally unleash a cathartic emotion in the final scene. And I'm going to say absolutely nothing about this scene – except that it is among most moving and poetic finales in cinema.

© Adrian Martin December 1997


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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