In 1946, the French director Georges Rouquier's now-classic film Farrebique received a considerable amount of popular and critical acclaim for its poetic evocation of a year in the life of a French farming village. Sandrine Veysset's remarkable debut feature, Will It Snow for Christmas?, also pays homage to the four seasons. Yet, unlike Rouquier's conservative hymn to rural bliss, Veysset's thoroughly unsentimental film provides a glimpse of the darker side of both the countryside and family values.

By Hollywood standards, very little happens in Will It Snow for Christmas?. Veysset's subject matter-the stoic endurance of a mother and her seven illegitimate children-might well have been fodder for tearjerking melodrama. Nevertheless, the young director insists on depicting horrifying events with lyrical restraint.

The exquisitely simple narrative pits the strong female protagonist (identified as only 'the mother' in the film's credits) against a brutish man, the father of her children who periodically returns to his actual wife and his 'legitimate' children. The autocratic father views his 'bastards' as little more than expendable free labor. Conversely, the lonely woman who once loved him must look on with forbearance as she copes with the primitive hygiene of a stone farmhouse, disgust as the children are rounded up to work in the fields, and horror as a teenage daughter is molested by the demented patriarch.

Despite this grim scenario, Veysset's film is far from depressing. Each season in the life of this destitute family is filled with carefree moments that help to leaven the gloom. Scenes of appallingly young children toiling in the fields are followed by shots of the same overworked kids playing with toy boats. The film's unobtrusive, observational style emphasizes the fact that even the most dismal lives encompass more than mere unmitigated horror. When the father is away, the kids watch movies and situation comedies on television that serve as meager-but necessary-antidotes to drudgery. More importantly, their troubled mother is an unswerving beacon of strength. When her oldest boy, Bruno, pleads with her to flee the farm, she reminds him that at least they 'live in the country...not in a council flat.' In other contexts, her explanation might seem vapid or Pollyanna-like. But the understated script and shooting style reiterate the fact that the heroine's efforts to conquer her desperation are far from vapid.

Of course, some viewers may find Veysset's spare script far too understated. After all, is the protagonist's outward calm truly heroic or merely masochistic? Yet, despite the fact that the audience is forced to fill in some of the narrative gaps themselves, we are provided with a few clues that at least partially explain the long-suffering mother's incongruous optimism. Because she was orphaned at an early age, her family's sometimes horrendous struggles still seem preferable to the isolation she endured as a child. And an elliptical scene with the callous father of her children reminds us that even this inequitable relationship was once tinged with romance.

Will It Snow for Christmas? concludes with some of the most beautifully rendered scenes in recent French cinema. Temporarily liberated from penury and hard labor, the mother and her children sit down to enjoy a sumptuous Christmas meal. As they enjoy the feast, brutality recedes into the background and transient pleasures become near-momentous events. After the well-fed mother and kids retire to bed, it begins to snow. The excited matriarch rouses her children from their contented sleep; the snowflakes seem like harbingers of an unattainable utopia.

Veysset has already been compared by critics to Maurice Pialat and Ken Loach, and Will It Snow for Christmas? certainly possesses much of the grittiness-as well as the emotional intensity-that distinguishes films such as La Gueule Ouverte and Ladybird Ladybird. This sort of uncompromising realism rarely reaps enormous financial rewards at the box office, but the unvarnished integrity of films like Will It Snow for Christmas? is, nevertheless, sorely needed.

--Richard Porton