Despite losing his job, Michel lives happily with Marie-Claire. They have been in love for more than 30 years. Their children and grandchildren delight them. But this happiness will be shattered along with their French window by two young men, armed and masked, who beat them, tie them up, snatch their wedding rings and flee with their credit cards. The shock will be all the more violent when they discover that this brutal attack was organised by one of the young workers laid off at the same time as Michel, by one of their own people.
FRENCH FILM FESTIVAL: The first scene of Robert Guediguian’s drama has a delicate sense of irony and sets a melancholy mood. At first, I thought the movie was going to be relentlessly hard.
On the Marseilles docks, a large group of grim-faced workers watch as their union leader draws names from a box, like numbers for a lottery. The 'winners’ here get to go home because this ritual is about electing workers for compulsory redundancy – 19 men in all. For about 10 minutes, I thought that maybe The Snows of Kilimanjaro would be yet another film in a growing catalogue of movies about the impact of the recent Global Financial Crisis. In a way it is, but not directly, which is to say it’s not a political picture, at least in the accepted sense nor is it a social realist tract like, say, a Ken Loach pic.
Still, Guediguian, like Loach, is a leftist and, again like Loach, he has a disdain for preachiness and also he takes his time with his storytelling. But Guediguian here has a taste for melodrama and an appreciation for the classic conventions of storytelling, which has moved some critics to call the film 'old fashioned’ when it screened in Cannes last year.
In a way, they are right, of course. The style is very straightforward, the camera technique as direct as a blast of Marseilles sunlight and just as warming. But I suspect what some folks find unacceptable about the film is Guediguian’s rather sweet and good-natured worldview (called sentimental elsewhere but I don’t think so at all). Or to put it another way, The Snows of Kilimanjaro is set in world full of fear and alienation but it says that we are all still connected – by our grief, our love and our children.
The title, by the way, hasn’t got much to do with Hemingway; it uses the 1966 French sugary pop hit 'Les neiges de Kilimanjaro’ by Pascal Danel as a bit of ironic light relief.
The movie’s 'heroes’ are a pair of one time socialists, former firebrands now in their 50s, who live a comfortable bourgeoisie existence, Michel (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and his wife, Marie-Claire (Ariane Ascaride).
They have raised a family and have grown up children and grandchildren. In a handful of short, swift scenes, we get a strong sense of who they are and the kind of life they’ve had: politically committed, decent, strong.
It was Michel who drew the names from the box in that first scene, including his own. As the movie begins, he faces his forced retirement with fear; he misses his pals, like Raoul (Gérard Meylan). But pretty soon he starts to enjoy it. His mates and family organise a wedding anniversary party. Michel and Marie-Claire are treated to an overseas jaunt to Tanzania and Michel’s old work mates have chipped in raising a fat wad of spending cash for the trip.
Michel is full of doubt: After years of service, should he indulge himself? Of course, this is the first indication that there may well be cracks in Michel’s integrity. By movie’s end, Guediguian makes clear that Michel exploited his position for selfish gain as much as advancing the welfare of his comrades; he feels that he should pay for his transgressions. But for his family and friends, his guilt seems to be another form of self-indulgence. For Guediguian, it seems an index for aging; regrets don’t recede with the years, they grow and in fact, become more urgent.
Throwing all this into high relief is a nasty crime: Michel and Mare-Claire and their friends are robbed in a terrifying home invasion. Their holiday money is stolen. One of the thieves turns out to be Christophe (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet), an angry and bitter young bloke, who was laid off from the docks like Michel. He has a mother who has left him to care for two much younger brothers, beautifully played Yann Loubatiere and Jean-Baptiste Fonck.
Christophe is soon arrested, which leaves the boys, effectively, orphaned. The rest of the film evolves into a fascinating moral dilemma, as Marie-Claire and Michel begin to feel responsible for the boys. Meanwhile, Raoul has no such scruples since his wife Denise (Marilyne Canto) was injured in the attack.
The end credits explain that the script by Guédiguian and Jean-Louis Milesi was inspired by a famous poem, Les pauvres gens (How Good are the Poor) by Victor Hugo, in which an impoverished woman takes in the children of a dead fisherman.
Could there be a more unfashionable a figure to put at the centre of a movie these days, than a socialist, let alone a pair of them? What’s good about the movie is that it has sense of lived experience about it; it takes for granted that individuals have values. It dares to dramatise their relative merits. I suppose that’s enough to turn a lot of people off, but in a current cinema full of attitudising and nihilism, The Snows of Kilimanjaro’s belief in an individual’s capacity for kindness seems bracing.