Les neiges du Kilimandjaro
starring Ariane Ascaride, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Gérard Meylan, Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet
screenplay by Jean-Louis Milesi and Robert Guédiguian
directed by Robert Guédiguian
by Angelo Muredda Committed leftist Robert Guédiguian's newest film The Snows of Kilimanjaro opens with a lottery. The local Marseilles shipyard is set to lay off twenty workers, and faithful union leader Michel (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) has been entrusted with carrying out the draw, eventually calling out even his own name--entered voluntarily despite his privileged position. The titular snows refer not to the Hemingway short story of the same name but to a popular song recited at Michel's premature retirement party, a paean to the middle-class luxuries of touring the world in one's golden years and a good fit for the African vacation his friends have ordered for him and his wife, Marie-Claire (Ariana Ascaride, excellent). Alas, before the couple gets its due, Michel's unionist chickens come home to roost in the form of a humiliating robbery of the travel fund later that evening, which could only have been committed by one of the party's guests--likely one of the unfortunate nineteen other names he called out earlier that week.
At its best, The Snows of Kilimanjaro moves between these tonally divergent and politically charged events with brave abandon. It can be an awfully hard movie to pin down, and for long stretches it productively deepens the discomfort of that opening lottery with its rich and surprisingly ambivalent characterizations. With the aid of their terrific actors, Guédiguian and co-screenwriter Jean-Louis Milesi bring texture to characters who initially scan as superficial types, without resorting to sloppy reveals or unearned emotional beats. (Their nuance makes an instructive comparison with the supposed emotional maturity of Alexander Payne's The Descendants, which continually sets up flat characters only to give them phony monologues later on.) Take Michel, who for all his apparent sincerity and good intentions in entering his name into the draw also turns out to be one of the architects of the plan, as the disgruntled robber Christophe (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) reminds him. It's unclear, and all the more interesting for it, whether Michel entered his name out of genuine solidarity for the men's communal raw deal or as an abstract thought experiment in helping his fellow man, ethically muddied by the fact that, unlike his soon-to-be-axed co-workers, he was nearing retirement-age anyway. When it comes, the revelation of his cavalier involvement in negotiations to save the shipyard by sacrificing twenty of its workers, whoever they may be and whatever their financial situation, gives us whiplash and forces us to think critically about his adoring wife's earlier half-joking comment that it's "difficult to live with such a hero."
Insofar as it keeps up this irony of inciting vaguely leftist sympathies for disenfranchised workers while acknowledging its own bias towards Michel and Marie-Claire's bourgeois civility and comfort, the film offers a relatively sophisticated portrait of class strife at its most banal, local level. But Guédiguian's last-act attraction to the fable as the most appropriate generic vehicle for resolving these pressing tensions is a real disappointment, resulting in a garish pileup of improvised adoptions and hasty cash transfers. Arguably, the picture's late turn to such narrative contrivance and bald didacticism is not an outright cheat, inasmuch as it's prefigured by the repetition of Joe Cocker's cover of Jimmy Cliff's "Many Rivers to Cross" on the soundtrack--training us from the start to fit these workers, Michel included, into a mythic narrative of pan-race and pan-class suffering. Yet mainly the song just makes us yearn for the real deal, unwisely courting wistful memories of Perry Henzell's more emboldened class critique The Harder They Come. The compelling toughness of the first half, particularly a prison encounter between Michel and Christophe where the latter calls him out for being a distant union leader (despite all his welcoming barbecues), turns to mush, with an increasingly treacly score paired to outlandishly sentimental plot turns that seem to be happening in a world where the human spirit trumps economics every time. What's lost is the promise of a film that in its most compelling moments is refreshingly aware that money matters. Originally published: February 15, 2012.
The Snows of Kilimanjaro began its one-week run at The Royal in Toronto on February 10th.