The Snows of Kilimanjaro (Les Neiges du Kilimandjaro) – a Review

Lincoln Green 23 Jan 2014

Image © Raidarmax

[The review contains plot details]

The film was released in 2011, its title connected more with the hugely popular song of that name first released in the 1960s and sung by Pascal Danel than with the Henry King’s 1952 film based on the Hemingway short story.  Directed and part written by Robert Guédiguian, recently described by the chair of a local Film Club as “a French Ken Loach”, left-wing sympathies are apparent as the film explores the dilemmas of a mature trade union activist when his principles are confronted by his emotional responses to a violent robbery.

The film begins with Michel (played by Jean-Pierre Darroussin) organising a lottery of dock workers in Marseille which determines those who will be made redundant.  He himself is one of the twenty selected and one of the film’s minor themes is an exploration of “an old man coming to terms with his weaknesses” at the end of full-time employment when there is a profound change in the role which has determined his life to date.  In his intimations of mortality he effectively sees the snows within which Gregory Peck’s earlier character reviews his life, and which the song claims “will make you a white coat, where soon you can sleep”. 

One of Michel’s guiding spirits is Jean Jaurés (1859 – 1914), socialist politician, orator, writer , founder of L’Humanité, anti-militarist and defender of Dreyfus.   “What would Jaurés do” remains a current stimulus for French political thinking.  Michel’s other hero is Spider-Man, whose use of “threads” to fight injustice parallels Jaurés affirmation of nurturing the ties which bind people together in the cause of non-violent revolution and social justice.

The film is rich in local detail.  Family trips to the beach, liaisons in the bars, barbeques, the school bus – all provide a solid sense of place which Michel’s wife Marie-Claire (played by Ariane Ascaride), a care-worker,  in particular identifies with strongly.  Continual movement of shipping and ferries forms a backdrop to many of the static outdoor scenes.  Stability, to place, to people and to convictions, particularly against the dynamic of social change is another theme of the film.

“What would we have thought 30 years ago if we could have seen ourselves now?” asks Michel of his wife as they greet strangers waving below their balcony.  He questions his own change in circumstances, now with loving grandchildren, house, car and comfortable if modest way of life.  His complacency has been severely challenged by the perspectives of Christophe (played by Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) the young man and ex-colleague who has attacked and robbed him of money and tickets for a trip to Tanzania and Mount Kilimanjaro.  Michel can neither physically defend his home and family, nor discursively uphold his ideals.

Christophe is arrested and it appears that the social system will dispense justice.  However the consequence is further disruption for Christophe’s two young siblings, for whom he is a scrupulous and effective carer.  Michel and Marie-Claire begin to recognise the inequalities which have driven Christophe towards robbery.  Michel’s friendship with his brother-in-law and Marie-Claire’s sister, also victims of the same attack, and for whom the law is not strict enough, is broken when Michel wants to withdraw charges.  Before his court hearing, Christophe shows no remorse but angrily makes Michel aware of flaws in the redundancy lottery, of hypocrisy in his unwitting poverty tourism, and of his class betrayal to the police.

It is ultimately the small actions which make a difference.  The director explains in a press release how the film is inspired by Victor Hugo’s poem Les pauvres gens (Poor People/How Good Are the Poor).  In the poem a poor couple eventually care for two orphans in addition to their own children.  Cooking fish, watching a cartoon with children, cleaning up after an incontinent elderly woman, playing cards, making a pergola, campaigning for fair treatment at work – these are the everyday actions of the film’s good servants of humanity who try to ensure that “no thread breaks”.  Musical as well as literary references underscore the action of the film, with Joe Cocker for example establishing the many rivers Michel must cross, and a Ravel Pavane signifying the death of an era, or perhaps of illusions, or of an old way of life.

Michel’s relationships with his friends, wife, grandchildren and Christophe’s siblings are seen as more lasting than those with his children, who strongly oppose Michel’s actions following the loss of the money.  His challenge is to request payment for the steelwork he has given them – is this the type of social relationship they would prefer?

Marie-Claire once more highlights her acute sense of stability to place and people with Michel at the end of the film by suggesting they observe their own wildlife instead of Kilimanjaro’s – by enjoying the local beach scene with its human gazelles, lionesses and hippos.  The implication of the film is perhaps that social action is best applied where one actually is, where practice can build on the inspiration of those such as Jaurés, and can respond to the changes which inequality has had on social needs.  Ironically one of the ferries which goes back and forth throughout the duration of the film carries Christophe’s absent mother, a victim swept along largely out of sight, and incapacitated by her circumstances, one of the threads which ties Christophe to his actions.

For some viewers Michel and Marie-Claire’s actions may seem impossibly and unrealistically idealistic, but as Jaurés wrote, and as the film articulates:

“Courage is being all together, whatever one’s work, a practitioner or a philosopher.  Courage is understanding one’s own life, making it precise, improving it, giving it depth, establishing it, and yet coordinating it with life in general.  Courage is watching that spinning or weaving machine so that no thread breaks, and yet preparing a social order that is broader and more brotherly, where the machine will be the common servant of all liberated workers.”



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