Friday 14 September 2012

"The Snows of Kilimanjaro" (Moviemail 14/09/12)

Robert Guediguian is the French writer-director who, in a run of films either side of his UK breakthrough, 1997’s Marius and Jeannette, established himself as the closest Gallic equivalent to our own Ken Loach – some going, in a naturally left-leaning national film industry. The Snows of Kilimanjaro, again set among Marseille’s working classes, starts out as a study of a marriage, and what happens to it when the male half of the equation – Jean-Pierre Darroussin’s sturdy union rep Michel – is laid off from his job on the docks, several weeks before the couple’s thirtieth anniversary.

For some while, the film’s dramas are no more pressing than those of everyday life, though the leads can’t fail to pull you in: Darroussin, about as dependable a pair of well-worn hands as the world cinema currently possesses, is even compelling when set to shelling peas and listing his favourite rock tracks to wife Marie-Claire (Ariane Ascaride). Then the film and its characters are sideswiped by a breach of trust that robs the couple of their retirement plans – and suddenly we’re left watching the consequences of this act, and a very different film indeed.

What’s particularly complex about The Snows of Kilimanjaro is that those betraying this community’s values aren’t the stuffed shirts and functionaries Loach has traditionally looked to in creating his antagonists. Rather they come from within – and it’s a testament to Guediguian’s even-handedness that he chooses to follow these characters back to their cramped, scantly furnished boltholes, and to show us, plainly yet compassionately and without condescension, why it is they’ve done what they have. Seeing this with his own eyes, the supremely class-conscious Michel is left weighing up whether he can bring himself to shop one of his own.

Such a synopsis makes the film sound on the heavy side, but in fact it’s distinguished by a supreme lightness of touch. Guediguian makes much of his sunkissed location, leavening his characters’ hardships with the songs, dancing and drinking that helps them get through the day. (The title derives from a chanson sung by the youngsters at Michel and Marie-Claude’s anniversary celebrations.) As if this wasn’t populist enough, the narrative turns on the whereabouts of a vintage comic book, an artefact that very pointedly connects the current movie fad for superheroes back to the real world.

Its thesis – that the recession shouldn’t put the squeeze on our humanity – is set out in a series of deftly written, superlatively performed scenes, in which even those elements that might verge on the idealised, such as Ascaride’s unfailingly patient and loving wife, are grounded with notes of grit and wit. It’s rare to see a fiction film this engaged with the state of things – much less one that also operates so well, and so touchingly, as a love story. Guediguian uses harsh reality and experience to better shape and define his characters: he takes the so-called quiet lives overlooked by those in positions of power, and elevates them to the standing of very fine drama indeed.

The Snows of Kilimanjaro opens in selected cinemas from today.

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