La Classe de Neige

Director: Claude Miller

A prize-winner at the Cannes festival, Claude Miller’s Class Trip is one of the best French films of the year and should bring wider attention to a talented director whose work has been somewhat neglected in the English-speaking world. The new film is based on the best-selling novel by Emmanuel Carrere, whose story of a young boy’s traumatic experiences during a winter school trip recalls Miller’s debut, The Best Way to Walk (La Meilleure facon de marcher), a brilliantly perceptive account of the troubled legacies attendant upon the childhood miseries.
The chief protagonist in Class Trip is the frail and withdrawn Nicolas (Clement Van Den Berg), who suffers from violent fantasies, including terrifying visions of his father’s death in a car accident. In the wake of a real road accident that dominates the news, the father himself has doubts about the safety of the school bus trip and decides to drive his son to the mountain camp. On arrival, Nicolas forgets to take his bag from the car and has to borrow clothes from another kid with whom he strikes up a tentative friendship. But the ordeals of the camp bring out Nicolas’s fears and phobias, causing him to spin incredible tales to his friend as a means of coping with his nightmares.
Miller mounts the film as part psychological portrait and part mystery thriller. Mixing fantasy and reality to telling effect, he builds up an elusive yet disquieting picture of dread and unease. As one knows from his earlier films, Miller has a special talent for capturing the highly subjective state of mind of his young protagonists. Instead of providing pat psychological explanations, he always favours a more oblique approach which hints at rather than spells out the possible consequences of childhood trama. La Classe de neige follows this pattern, even as it taps into current fears about child abuse in its final revelation of a horrific crime that is linked to Nicolas’s nightmares.
Miller belongs to a great tradition in French cinema of film-makers dealing perceptively and imaginatively with the themes of childhood and adolescence, as represented by such classics as Jean Vigo’s Zero de Conduite (Zero for Conduct), Rene Clement’s Jeux interdits (Forbidden Games), and Francois Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows). A formet assistant and close friend to Truffaut, he filmed his mentor’s script for Les petites voleuse (The Little Thief) in 1988. Yet Miller’s own films are far tougher than Truffaut’s. They place much more emphasis on psycho-sexual complexes and the powers of the imagination to conjure up a world of fear and anxiety. Miller likes to thrust his audience into the highly subjective world of his protagonists and to blur the distinction between reality and fantasy. Such is the case in La Classe de neige, where there is no clear separation between the flashbacks to past reality and Nicolas’s hallucinations.
This sense of ambiguity is perhaps he key to Miller’s work, and it finds brilliant cinematic expression through his command of the medium. La Classe de neige was probably the best-made film on show at Cannes this year, and one suspects that its technical excellence is what secured it a share of the Jury Prize. Magnificently shot and edited, performed to perfection and directed with great skill and imagination, it is a sombre yet wholly compelling work.

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