The Snows of Kilimanjaro

The Snows of Kilimanjaro

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

Not a reissue of the 1952 Hollywood take on Hemingway’s short-story with Gregory Peck as a doomed big-game hunter – in fact it’s interesting to speculate how a movie involving those two icons of old-school masculinity would have treated the violent housebreaking that forms the core of Guediguian’s drama.

A testosterone-fest centred on the idea of revenge and retributive justice would be my guess. But this thoughtful and moving film takes an altogether more subtle and penetrating look at the causes and effects of a seemingly random and senseless act of violence – though its theme of a blue-collar protagonist coming to terms with the flaws in his character and the compromises of his life would, I suspect, have had some resonance for Papa H at least. The protagonist is Michel (Darroussin), a dock worker and trade union official in Marseille. When his firm announces a round of lay-offs, the socialist principles he’s been committed to since his youth prompt him to put his name in the hat despite the fact that his status could grant him exemption. He’s one of the unlucky ones and has to leave the job that has been the centre of his life, much to the frustration of his best mate Raoul (Meylan), a fellow dockside veteran who despairs of Michel’s unbending idealism.

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But Michel warms to a life of enforced early retirement, doing odd jobs for the family, playing with his grandchildren and spending more time with his wife Marie-Claire (Ascaride). And an anniversary party yields a surprise – their family and friends have clubbed together to get them tickets for a safari holiday to Kilimanjaro, with a wad of hard cash as spending money. Michel has invited the other redundancy victims to the do, but his gesture backfires. A few days later, when he and Raoul are playing cards with their wives masked gunmen burst into the house and rob them of their tickets, cash and bank cards in one fell swoop, beating up Michel for good measure.

Apart from the trauma of the attack, Michel realises that only one of the party guests could have known so much money was in the house; a fellow worker has repaid his service to the labour movement, and his personal kindness, by treating him as fair – and easy – game. As he and Marie-Claire battle an indifferent bureaucracy to get their dream back on track, Michel begins to question whether he has betrayed his ideals and become one of the ‘bourgeoise’ he once despised. When one of the raiders indeed turns out to be a young former colleague Christophe (Leprince-Ringuet) Michel sees the new face of blue-collar Europe; rendered permanently insecure and politically apathetic by globalisation and the free market, with no respect for union dinosaurs who can quote socialism’s founding fathers verbatim but still can’t prevent a mass lay-off.

Yet crucially, Guediguian refuses to simply paint Christophe as the villain of the piece. As the film digs deeper into his own family background it becomes clear that he’s as much a victim of circumstances as anyone. As Michel and Marie-Claire become more and more involved in the young man’s life the film’s central message becomes clear: we’re all in this together and though small acts of kindness and forgiveness won’t solve all society’s problems they’re far preferable to prejudice and vindictiveness.

One can easily imagine a British take on the same story becoming a slice of vigilante porn. Or an American one becoming a self-satisified group hug of a film. Instead Guediguian takes a subtle and even-handed approach, well aware that the selflessness of the central characters will be construed as weakness and misplaced guilt – even by their own friends and family...

Some of the plot developments are a little contrived, and the equal focus given to a large cast of characters results in a loss of dramatic momentum at times. But for the most part this is a warm, uplifting and thought-provoking film that resolutely refuses to judge. As co-writer and director, Guediguian vividly brings to life the rythms and routines of working-class family life in Marseille, where simple pleasures like a long lunch in the sun or Sunday at the beach are a bastion against a tough and changing world.

He coaxes uniformly exemplary performances from his cast. At times, you really forget you’re watching actors, so completely do they inhabit the roles, with special praise to Ascaride, a Guediguian regular who starred with Meylan in the director’s best-known work Marius Et Jeannette. In many ways, Marie-Claire (a cleaner for the elderly who, we learn, gave up dreams of a nursing career to help her husband in his political work) is the real hero of the story; tough yet caring, providing constant support to Michel and her children despite being equally traumatised by the attack, and Ascaride, like all the cast, brings subtlety and humanity to a role that could become a stereotype.

It’s hard to imagine any British moviemaker (with the honourable exception of Ken Loach) wanting to tackle such subject matter, despite it being equally relevant here. So all the more reason to seek out that increasingly rare quarry; a film that tackles important issues but manages to be a warm and satisfying human drama too.

Reviewed on: 23 Sep 2012
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The Snows of Kilimanjaro packshot
Director Robert Guediguian returns to his old Marseilles stamping ground for an entertaining, politically passionate drama starring the director's ensemble regulars.
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Director: Robert Guediguian

Writer: Robert Guediguian, Jean-Louis Milsi

Starring: Ariane Ascaride, Jean-Pierre, Darroussin, Grard Meylan

Year: 2011

Runtime: 107 minutes

Country: France


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