English title: ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’. Director: Robert Guédiguian. This has been a box office success in France since it opened in mid-November and has received excellent reviews (which in France usually means that the critics are friends with the director in question and share his or her politics). I wasn’t going to bother with it, as I am not a fan of Guédiguian, who wears his hard leftism on his sleeve and shoves it in your face in his films, at least in the two I had seen prior to this one. One was his 1997 ‘Marius et Jeannette’, which was a huge hit back then on the French left, at least among those over a certain age. I didn’t like it, as, among other things, its politics were so unsubtle and simple-minded. Roger Ebert, a good American liberal comme moi, was equally unimpressed with the pic, calling it
…a sentimental fantasy of French left-wing working-class life, so cheerful and idealized that I expected the characters to break into song; they do all dance together, in the forecourt of a shuttered cement factory…in a blue-collar district of Marseilles…
You get the idea. After this one I had no interest in seeing Guédiguian’s subsequent films, avoiding even his ‘Le Promeneur du Champ de Mars‘—on François Mitterrand in his dying days (which I really should see, out of professional and cinephile duty)—and ‘Voyage en Arménie‘. I did, however, feel compelled to see his ‘L’Armée du crime,’ on the Manouchian group in the FTP-MOI during the Nazi occupation of Paris. I know this period of history fairly well—and which I should, as I teach it to undergraduates—but not every last detail, so I decided to reserve judgment on the pic until I got the verdict from a friend who is a bona fide specialist of the subject. He informed me, in a private communication, that the film “is a propaganda piece” for the Stalinists of the 1940s French Communist party, is riddled with errors—of chronology, events, interpretation, you name it—, and, in short, “is crap.” So much for ‘L’Armée du crime’.
I was thus going to avoid this latest one like the plague, but finally cracked, mainly on account of its 4.1 rating on Allociné. What a mistake. It’s almost a sequel to ‘Marius et Jeannette’, set in the L’Estaque quartier of Marseille’s 16th arrondissement, a charming seafront area that I’ve been to a few times. Same lead actors, same politics, same schtick. I was rolling my eyes and groaning at various moments, and toward the end let out an audible “Oh please, give me a break!” The audience, mean age 63 or thereabouts, did not react likewise. It was just so caricaturally bleeding heart. A parody of French gauchisme. Variety’s critic—an “Anglo-Saxon” bien entendu—got it right
The sweetest young orphans one could possibly imagine get saved by a middle-class Marseille couple in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” a blizzard of cloying sentiment not to be confused with Hollywood’s like-titled Hemingway adaptation from 1952. Inspired by a Victor Hugo poem, French director Robert Guediguian (“The Army of Crime”) returns to the small-scale work with which he began his career in 1980, ladling on the syrup in an ingratiating bid to melt bourgeois hearts. While Ariane Ascaride and Jean-Pierre Darroussin are endearing enough as the middle-aged do-gooders, the forecast calls for “Snows” to fall mainly in Gaul.
Implausibly contrived to rhyme with Hugo’s “How Good Are the Poor,” pic has its happily marrieds turning the other cheek after they’re tied up, beaten and robbed by the orphans’ downtrodden older brother, Christophe (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet). Guediguian may intend to salute, per Hugo, the goodness of the poor. However, as Christophe remains callously unrepentant for the crime (while his siblings remain merely adorable), the film favors a couple that’s underemployed but sufficiently comfy to give money away. Super 16 lensing lends the obligatory hint of grit to a classy production.
Yes, the unionized French working class has indeed become middle class and bourgeoisified—no doubt to Guédiguian’s regret—, and is a subtext of the film, but which is in no way contradictory with them expressing working class consciousness or in having a grand cœur. I am no doubt in the tiny handful to make this observation but I think Guédiguian erred in making the hero of the film a militant in the CGT at the port of Marseille. The CGT, despite its history of Communist domination, is an estimable trade union federation and which has often effectively defended the legitimate interests of French working men and women. And I should be careful not to critique it too severely, as an extremely close member of my family is a union delegate in this syndicat. But the CGT in the Marseille port has been particularly retrograde and corporatiste in mentality—like its counterparts in the Paris press, whom I wrote about a few months ago—, and bears considerable responsibility for the economic problems of the city. Even the national CGT has shied away from lending more than lip service support to its Marseille port section in its incessant labor conflicts. Marseille should by all rights be one of the leading ports in the Mediterranean—generating employment in a city that sorely needs it and being a force for economic dynamism—but it is not, in good part thanks to the excessive militancy of the longshoreman’s unions, and notably the CGT (e.g. see here). Sorry to sound like a réac but what I say here is an incontrovertible fact.
If one is wondering why the pic has its name, it’s ’cause the protag couple’s CGT comrades gave them a one-week vacation to Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania as a present (and with the protag husband pledging to speak Swahili there, not English—the language of the colonialists, so he declared—, neither of which he spoke anyway). But having bleeding hearts, the couple cashed in the tickets and gave the money to the poor orphaned children of the imprisoned lout who had brutally tied them up and robbed them. Say what one will about Hollywood but no American film could ever get away with such a denouement. It would be laughed out of, well, everywhere. And however much aging French lefties may gush at such bleeding heartism (angélisme, en français) on the big screen, not a single one of them would ever act likewise. On se fout de ma gueule ou quoi ?…
For cinematic treatments of the déclassé working class, the American indy film ‘Putty Hill,’ which I saw earlier in the fall, is far superior. It’s set in a working class suburb of Baltimore, whose characters look to be straight out of season 2 of ‘The Wire’ but well after they’ve lost steady (unionized) employment. These are the Americans who join the army and are sent to fight wars in places like Iraq, who tend not to vote in elections—and are therefore a negligible quantity politically-speaking—, and who are rarely seen in Hollywood movies.
Another film on the working class I saw not too long ago, this one from Scotland, is ‘Neds’. As it’s British, it has its level of violence and general brutality. And with no bleeding heartism. Not for the Celts. They don’t know such a thing in Glasgow. Reviews here, here, and here. Recommended.
ADDENDUM: A couple more observations on Guédiguian’s film. First, the CGT protag is fond of quoting Socialist père fondateur Jean Jaurès, notably to the younger generation. Le retour aux sources. But how utterly conventional. Charles de Gaulle excepted there is probably no political figure in 20th century French political iconography more consensual than Jaurès. Even Sarkozy and the right cite Jaurès to their advantage. And even the Front National. One will, however, not hear any mention in a Guédiguian film of, say, Maurice Thorez or Jacques Duclos (huh? who are they?), or the veritable icons of the CGT-PCF in decades past, V.I. Lenin and J.V. Stalin. Secondly, the trip to Mount Kilimanjaro. Seriously, what group of proletarians, who have likely never ventured further than Spain or Italy—and even then—, would think of giving a cherished comrade co-worker an all-expenses paid vacation to f***ing Tanzania?! If one wants to please an ordinary Frenchman or woman with a vacation to an exotic faraway place, one proposes Martinique or Saint Martin, or maybe Thailand. Or if the cégétistes could put their ideological prejudices aside, New York or Florida. Or Las Vegas. Really, WTF would a couple of proles from Marseille do for a week in Arusha? No wonder they cashed in their tickets.