It may sound strange to describe a movie about being robbed at gunpoint and having a dream trip ruined as a feel-good film, but that’s exactly what Robert Guediguian’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro is. This movie, which shares only a title with the Ernest Hemingway novel, is meant to be a serious examination of the collapse of working-class solidarity in contemporary France.
Like most of Guediguian’s films, it is set in his home city of Marseille and stars his stock company of very talented local actors, not the least of whom is his wife, Ariane Ascaride. But while the central conflict that the film attempts to explore may not be that compelling (it’s hard for me to get worked up over the unraveling of the all-for-one European working-class ethos), it’s still an engaging film and works as a slice-of-life drama.
In spite of the title, it is set entirely in Marseille and should increase tourism to that destination. Even the dreariest housing projects seem to have views of the picturesque harbor, and the beach looks so lovely it’s a wonder than anyone who lives there would ever want to travel abroad.
The main characters, Michel (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and Marie- Claire (Ariane Ascaride), are a long-married couple with grown children. He works at the port and is a senior union official. She cares for the elderly. They pal around with her sister, Denise (Marilyn Canto), and her husband, Raoul (Gerard Meylan), who also works at the port. They spend lots of time in their ramshackle garden apartment, grilling sardines and drinking good wine while having conversations about politics and philosophy. When Michel is laid off via a lottery in which a number of workers are made to leave, he takes early retirement. Their friends and children pool their savings to buy Michel and Marie-Claire tickets to see Mount Kilimanjaro, their dream trip, and they are delighted. But at a small gettogether in their home a few days later, masked robbers break in, beat them, tie them up, and take their money. Michel immediately suspects someone who was present at the party and knew about the large cash gift, and his suspicions lead him straight to one of the thieves, Christophe (Gregoire Leprince Ringuet), a young co-worker from the port who was also laid off. The young man, who has used the money to pay back rent and buy toys for his young brothers, is arrested. But then Michel and Marie-Claire have a crisis of conscience. Christophe sees them as privileged members of a kind of upper-echelon working-class elite, not simply as a hard-working couple with better luck and more seniority than he and his family have had.
Christophe’s mother had kids too young and simply abandons his adorable younger brothers. When Marie-Claire learns of this, she begins checking on the boys, and a bond forms.
If you’ve seen a movie or two, you can see where all this is headed. But watching it unfold, even if you find the redemption difficult to stomach (why do Marie-Claire and Michel need redemption at all – they’re downright angelic), is enjoyable.
That’s mainly due to the charming performances by all, particularly the quirky, unconventionally lovely Ascaride. If you’ve seen previous films by Guediguan, you can amuse yourself by thinking of other roles these actors have played in his movies. In Marius and Jeannette, Ascaride and Meylan played an appealing working-class couple, while in Marie-Jo and Her Two Lovers, Ascaride was caught in a love triangle with – guess who – Meylan and Darroussin. It’s a little like a high school where the same kids get all the starring roles in the school plays.
But the acting and the fun score – particularly a recording of Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross” played by Joe Cocker – make this movie stylish fun. Is it an accurate representation of working-class life and union conflicts in Marseille? That seems unlikely. But if life were as civilized as this movie presents it, people could work out their conflicts over a glass of fine wine while listening to classic pop tunes.
The Snows of Kilimanjaro
Hebrew title: Shilgei Ha’Kilimanjaro.
Directed by Robert Guediguian.
Written by Guediguian and Jean-Louis Milesi With Ariane Ascaride, Jean-Pierre Darroussin
Running time:109 minutes.
Check with theaters for subtitle information.