In Robert Guédiguian‘s “The Snows Of Kilimanjaro” shot in the beautiful town of Esthaqe deeper problems are roiling underneath the sunkissed sky. After thirty years, Michel (Jean-Pierre Daroussin), along with a number of other workers, has lost his job on the docks where he was one of the toppers. Essentially forced into early retirement, Michel mostly keeps a strong front, spending more time with his grandchildren and tackling projects he’s always said he was going to do but never did. But he’s also got his lovely wife Marie-Claire (Ariane Ascardie) at his side, and as it turns out, they’ve got an anniversary coming up. Gathering all their friends together — including some of Michel’s former coworkers, some of whom were also laid off — they celebrate and are surprised with a gift of money and tickets from everyone for an African Safari. Despite the brief bump in the road, life seems very, very good.
However, this idyllic time is smashed apart when one night, two masked men break into the Michel and Marie-Claire’s house in the midst of a card game with their best friends Raoul (Gerard Meylan) and Denise (Maryline Canto) (who is Marie-Claire’s sister). Hit and tied up, the thieves ask for their credit cards and for the money they received at the party, revealing that the assailant is someone they know. Shattered by this knowledge both mentally and physically, each reacts to the event different: Raoul is angry but puts it behind him, Denise becomes a bundle of nerves who is terrified to leave the house while Marie-Claire just wants to understand why they were targeted. But thanks to a (pretty contrived) stroke of luck Michel figures out that it was the young Christophe and that this act was ostensibly one of revenge.
At first Michel is flabbergasted and then furious that Christophe would steal from him, a similarly unemployed worker just like him. But in Christophe’s eyes, Michel sold out his ideals for a middle class existence, a nice house and a car. And moreover he believes that money is just pocket change for Michel who has a severance package and pension on the way. For Christophe, who was only six months on the job before he got laid off, his first priority on receiving his cut from the theft is to pay rent and get food for the apartment where he and his two younger brothers live; he’s essentially a single parent to the siblings who have an absentee Mom who first priority isn’t her children.
At this point the film introduces some intriguing themes about idealism and class. Michel and Marie-Claire wonder aloud what their younger selves would think of their life now, with a home, children, grandchildren, Sundays by the sea and comfortable existence. They probably would have called them bourgeois or middle-class. But Michel counters that as part of the union, he fought to earn the living he now has and that young people like Christophe have no appreciation for the path that his forbears cut. The question that looms is if the compromises we make to our youthful ideals is worth the creature comforts they bring us, or if we have a greater responsibility to stay true to those convictions.
This is some rich and interesting stuff, but unfortunately, as the film settles into its latter third, it shifts creakily into an unconvincing and somewhat cornball melodrama that never at any moment is believable. While it winds to the kind of conclusion tailor made for mainstream audiences who might venture to the arthouse, it betrays Guédiguian deeper and unanswerable questions that he raises. But what keeps this section — and really the film as a whole — from completely deflating is a pair of utterly charming performances from Ascaride and Darroussin. The chemistry between the two is winning and engaging, and they are a lovely pair to watch even as the plot around them collapses. And special mention must be made of Pierre Niney, who appears in two scenes with Ascaride as a bartender and absolutely steals them. It’s a small part that any other filmmaker probably would have cut out of the film or reduced, but Guédiguian realized what he had here and kept it in and it drew big, big laughs from the Cannes crowd.
But despite the best efforts of the cast, “The Snows Of Kilimanjaro” isn’t quite the humanitarian battle cry Guediguain wants it to be. The film it too uncomfortable to judge its characters to play fairly, and the roundabout turn to a happy ending is false. That said, Guédiguian film is entirely pleasant, seemed to play well to the crowd we saw it with and like we mentioned, is an arthouse film for those who don’t generally go the arthouse. But for the rest of us, ‘Kilimanjaro’ is slight, flirting with big ideas but winding up with easy answers instead. [C+]