Released on Blu-ray and DVD for the first time in this country, Sandrine Veysset’s Will It Snow for Christmas? (1996) is a debut feature of remarkable dramatic maturity and visual assurance. The episodic story centres on a woman (Dominique Reymond) raising her seven children on the remote farm owned by her lover (Daniel Duval), who lives nearby with his other family. Despite his cold manner, penny-pinching ways and callous exploitation of his offspring, the mother would rather live in the freezing farmhouse than a council flat. But the older kids are starting to rebel.
Here are five reasons you should add it to the watch pile.
1. Sandrine Veysset had never even considered making a film before
Despite building some sets for Leos Carax’s Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991) and Karim Dridi’s Bye-Bye (1995), Sandrine Veysset had no intention of making a film. Yet, while working as Carax’s driver in Paris, she began telling him about her childhood on a farm near the southern city of Montpellier and he suggested that she write about her memories as a way of conquering her homesickness.
It took four years for Veysset to complete the screenplay and find a producer who would let the 30-year-old direct on her own uncompromising terms. But the result was a realist masterpiece that not only won the prestigious Prix Louis Delluc, but also the César for best first film.
2. It belongs to a rich tradition of French films about farming
Veysset was not a keen movie-goer and had studied art and literature, so it’s likely that she was more influenced by painters such as Jean-François Millet and Théodore Rousseau and books such as Émile Zola’s La Terre (1887) than by any films on farm life.
That said, she has acknowledged a debt to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Master of the House (1925) and Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955). And such is the authenticity of her depiction of the arduousness of working the land that Will It Snow for Christmas? will remind many of Georges Rouquier’s documentary duo Farrebique (1946) and Biquefarre (1983), as well as Raymond Depardon’s series L’Approche (2001), Le Quotidien (2005) and La Vie moderne (2008).
3. The naturalism of the performances
Determined from the outset to cast relative unknowns as the parents of the seven children on the farm near Cavaillon in the Vaucluse, Veysset paired stage actress Dominique Reymond with TV stalwart Daniel Duval. Having auditioned over 400 kids with no previous acting experience, she moved her chosen septet into the farmhouse before shooting commenced so that they could bond with Reymond and start to respond to her as their on-screen mother. Indeed, they were barred from seeing their own parents during the location shoots across three different seasons.
4. There’s more to the visuals than authentic muck
Veysset has played down the film’s autobiographical basis. However, as the setting isn’t time specific, it’s tempting to suggest that she was seeking to recreate the look and feel of the Super 8 home movies that her brother had made in the 1970s. In conjunction with cinematographer Hélène Louvart, Veysset shot the action on Super 16 stock, which was blown up to 35mm.
As the narrative is constructed like a spiral so that the passing seasons can reflect the mother’s shifting emotions, Veysset consciously drains the colour from the images, as the optimism of the spring and summer fades with the coming winter. But the use of an iris to close a shot of Reymond clutching her baby in a desolate field alludes to the unchanging nature of the rural routine.
5. Few films have depicted childhood so starkly
Whereas an American variation on this subject would almost certainly have strayed into sentimentality, Veysset echoes Ermanno Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978) in her unflinchingly non-nostalgic approach to childhood. She’s in good company, as René Clément’s Jeux interdits (1952), François Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups (1959) and the Maurice Pialat duo of L’Enfance-nue (1968) and A nos amours (1983) have similarly dwelt on the harsher realities of youth.
Yet, in stressing the father’s callous exploitation of his illegitimate brood, the film has a fairytale feel that prompted Cahiers du cinéma to dub it “Snow White, the Ogre and the Seven Dwarves”. There may be no escaping the hard work, but this is also a celebration of simple pleasures, such as playing hide and seek, watching fireworks, sheltering from the rain under plastic sheeting, hearing familiar stories and singing Christmas songs by candlelight.