In The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Marseille-inspired Robert Guédiguian returns to the source of his original creativity. The story is shot on the Mediterranean coast, this time in the region of Cannes where the action centres around the docks. Michel and Marie-Claire are about to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary when Michel, as union rep, renounces his trade unionist privileges and joins the list of workers whose names have been picked out of a box for redundancy. Around the dock area, union banners provide the timeframe and backdrop to the story and spell out the battles fought in the current economic climate. There is closeness and companionship in work and in the docks, and the natural concern raised is what is to become of an unemployed man in his 50s? Why this act of self-sacrifice?
Guédiguian’s close-ups draw the viewer into an intimacy with his protagonists, so much so that in spite of some eccentric choices in editing and the quirky juxtaposition of certain sequences, we willingly follow the progress of the central characters with interest. At the wedding anniversary celebrations, Michel and Marie-Claire unequivocally and unashamedly reiterate their vows of love in front of the assembled guests, including the 19 other workers recently made redundant. The couple are clearly very popular, a fact illustrated when they are given as a present tickets to spend a week on Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania. (The Snows of Kilimanjaro refers to a 1966 popular song that the couple had danced to when they met.) The film’s musical namesake and the imagery that it conjures up couldn’t be further away from the Guédiguian’s filming of the docks, and this might offer a clue as to the feelings of the director for his subject matter. For it may be that the implausible and the far-fetched aspects of the Michel and Marie Claire’s story and the film don’t matter. In any case, both husband and wife soon to realise that Kilimanjaro is out of reach and irrelevant to their lives.
A short time later, the couple and two friends are attacked at gun point and robbed of their savings and anniversary gifts. The second part of the story explores how the four victims cope in the aftermath of the attack. From this traumatic incident, each of the characters will find a different way of understanding what has happened and of coming to terms with it. This violent event will uncover a new sense of responsibility and a path to redemption.
This film challenges the more cynical amongst us. The naïve simplicity of some of the scenes, sunny people dancing on the docks, Michel and Marie-Claire’s public confession of their love for one another in front of the assembled masses, the vulnerability of the actors or the implausible denouement of the heroes’ decisions to adopt the two abandoned children of the tale might elicit embarrassment on the part of hardened cinema goers. This is no realism of the order shown in Renoir’s Toni.
Imperfect and idiosyncratic in its rendition, as a fable of modern times, The Snows of Kilimanjaro is a film which despite its foibles manages to conjure up a strong and warm humanist vision and offers a deep reflection on social responsibility. Among the many themes touched upon, there is a plea for the younger generation to be heard in difficult times. This is cinema with fragility, personality and soul, where the director’s vision inspires the spectator to think.