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Les Neiges de Kilimanjaro ~ The Snows of Kilimanjaro
Story of a Mugged Communist
The wonderful new movie from Robert Guédiguian isn’t directly linked to Ernest Hemingway’s story. Guédiguian is a very French director, in the best (and most unpretentious) sense: engrossed in the stuff of French life as lived by ordinary people. There was a French pop song of the same name (which was in fact inspired by Hemingway), a song beloved by the middle-aged couple who are the film’s protagonists.
The title is also literal: Michel and Marie-Claire’s children have bought them tickets to Tanzania for their anniversary. It’s a fitting gift but ironic. The pseudo-safari trip to East Africa is the kind of vacation favored by the French upper class; and not only are Michel and Marie-Claire working-class, but Michel is a union leader of long standing, whose hero is Jean Jaurès, the socialist and pacifist leader assassinated in 1914. What’s more, Michel has just lost his job on the Marseilles docks—the laid-off workers were chosen by lot, and he insisted on adding his name, though union officials legally can’t be sacked in France.
Despite their problems, Michel and Marie-Claire are happy. They have each other, their children and grandchildren, their comfortable home and friends, not to mention the sunny Marseilles weather. Guédiguian is well-known as a social director, like Ken Loach in Britain or John Sayles in the US. He deals with social realities unflinchingly, but being from the Midi he loves life, and especially life in the Midi. His movies lovingly depict landscape, food, drink—he’s like Loach and Sayles with a strong dose of Marcel Pagnol. Then there are his people.
Guédiguian has a stock troupe that has reappeared in his films from the beginning. Jean-Pierre Darroussin (as Michel) is excellent at bringing out the extraordinary in the ordinary. Michel’s honesty extends especially to himself, highlighting his flaws but also his complexity and depth. Ariane Ascaride as Marie-Claire has an otherworldly capacity to radiate inner beauty from her diminutive, conventionally not-very-attractive appearance. Sometimes she seems too good, but she’s never saccharine—after seeing her performances it’s hard to take typical Hollywood actresses quite so seriously. Gérard Meylan’s Raoul is the foil to both Michel and Marie-Claire, a hearty and tempestuous family friend and companion-in-arms, given over to the male principle, never really bad but capable of bad behavior.
Instead of the down-to-earth obstacles we see in most Guédiguian films, in Kilimanjaro the action is catalyzed by a melodramatic shock. One evening, while Michel and Marie-Claire are playing cards at home with Raoul and his wife Denise (Marilyne Canto), they become victims of a home invasion. They are bound, beaten, threatened, and robbed of the money they’d been given for their trip. Aside from the dream voyage being ruined, the victims are traumatized, their emotions and ideals shaken. The worst is how the robbers knew about the money: they were familiar with the victims. Denise becomes clinically depressed, and Raoul embittered. But the more thoughtful Michel and Marie-Claire, because they are more thoughtful, are the most profoundly affected. What follows is both psychodrama and detective story; and the film works brilliantly on both levels.
Over the years, the prolific Guédiguian has honed his craft to become one of France’s best directors. He knows how to squeeze the most out of camera work, lighting, and editing. That’s usually to bring out the truth of his situations. But given his political sympathies, it’s easy to slide into manipulation. This was especially true in his recent The Army of Crime, about resistance fighters in occupied France. In Kilimanjaro there are only momentary lapses. A police investigator (Robinson Stévenin) seems too “Starsky and Hutch” to believe; and a scene where Michel is permitted to strike the suspect in custody while his wife observes through a peep-hole is contrived. Aside from that, the only flaw in Guédiguian’s rigor is the occasional drippy background music.
It’s intriguing how Guédiguian has modulated his views. He’s faithful to his leftist populism, as the protagonists learn about the perpetrator’s difficult life and wretched upbringing. But the criminal (vividly played by Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) isn’t sentimentalized. Michel and Marie-Claire don’t exonerate him from responsibility (and their co-victims certainly don’t). Beyond the crime itself, the director takes a view of work and individual responsibility at odds with conventional French leftism. Marie-Claire’s working as a housecleaner is seen as normal work that she does with a normal attitude, not as demeaning (not, by that implication never admitted to by “progressives,” something for foreigners). After the unemployed Michel runs out of money he takes a job delivering junk mail. Though he attracts our sympathy because of an injured arm, honest work is seen as dignified—there’s no eww factor. At the same time, Guédiguian doesn’t gloss over the fact that Michel was a privileged union professional, not a simple worker, allowing his family a comfortable standard of living, and that the lottery system he designed for the layoff was no more “fair” than the market system he opposes.
The Snows of Kilimanjaro is about the Age of Globalization, but its humanist views are rooted in French tradition (aside from Jaurès, the closing credits reveal its inspiration in a poem by Victor Hugo). The movie’s happy end is earned, and complicated besides, although a few narrative threads are left dangling. It might be considered a social “feel-good” movie, but while most feel-good movies leave you feeling sticky with sentimentality, The Snows of Kilimanjaro makes you feel as clean as, well, snow.
More about this film at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival site
A co-production Agat Films & Cie, The Wasteland Belle de Mai, France 3 Cinema.
With the participation of Canal +, Ciné Cinéma, France Televisions.
In association with Cinémage 5, La Banque Postale Image 4, 7 Soficinéma, Cofimage 22.
With the support of the Provence Alpes Cote D’Azur in partnership with the Centre National Film and Moving Image.
Diaphana Films (France)
Photo credits: © Pierre Milon
Dimitri Keramitas is a Paris-based film reviewer who covers the latest French film releases for BonjourParis every other week. Click on his name to read his past reviews published here.
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