Les neiges du Kilimandjaro: A second opinion

The extended family of Michel and Marie-Claire

Des has had difficulty trying to post this comment on our initial review of The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Since it is such a detailed response, we thought it merited a separate posting. (Roy Stafford)

I really enjoyed this film, as did the other ten or so people at the early-evening  screening in Aberdeen who burst into spontaneous applause at the end. And if you know Aberdeen audiences, this is not to be sniffed at. But this was the one and only screening which is a great pity. Since seeing the four late 90s/early 2000s films – Marius et Jeanette (1997), A la place du coeur /In place of the heart (1998), and La ville est tranquille/The town is quiet (2000) and A l’attaque/Attack (2000), I’ve managed to miss a few Guédiguian films, such as Marie Jo et ses deux amours (2002) and Lady Jane (2007). And his early films don’t seem to be available on DVD. I don’t quite understand how distribution of French films to the UK works. It’s partly star-driven (Depardieu, Binoche, Huppert, Tautou, Duris, Scott-Thomas etc) but many star-free French films manage to get a UK run. e.g. two films by Fred Cavayé: Pour elle (Anything for Her, 2008) and À bout portant (Point Blank, 2010)

These early films  seem to conform to Guédiguian’s stated attitude (in an interview I haven’t been able to find, but which he touches on in this Senses of Cinema interview), that he alternates ‘dark’ films with ‘light’ ones; dark to open people’s eyes to the real situation and light ones to give the audience some hope. Marius et Jeanette certainly has a knockabout comedy flavor. La ville est tranquille, however, is a very bleak (despite occasional touches of comedy) and A l’attaque was very light and (once the basic gimmick of the film was established – we see the scriptwriters writing the screenplay which is then dramatised including alternative lines of narrative which are then rejected, the screen crumpling like the sheet of the discarded paper of the script) not completely successful. But what I think is his best film, A la place du coeur, managed to keep the dark and the light in balance, as does Les neiges de Kilimanjaro which I think is Guéguidian’s best since then, at least of those I’ve managed to see.

Of the subsequent films I have seen, Le Promeneur du Champs de Mars /The Last Mitterand) is interesting mainly for Michel Bouuquet’s portrayal of the President but for me, Guéguidian really pulled his punches when dealing with the shady political past of the old fraud. The other is L’Armée du crime (The Army of Crime) about a group of foreign Resistance workers in Paris during the Occupation led by the Armenian poet, Missak Manouchian. Not a great film but a worthy (I hope this doesn’t sound too patronising) addition to those films that are important primarily for the story they tell, such as La Rafle (The Roundup, 2010) about the rounding up of Jews by the French police in 1942 to be sent to the death camps; La Nuit noire -17 Octobre 1961 (Alain Tasma, 2005), about the massacre and subsequent cover up of the death of over 200 North African demonstrators at the hands of the Paris police; and Indigènes (Days of Glory, Rachid Bouchareb 2006) which shows the role of French colonial troups in the liberation of Europe. (Le voyage en Arménie, 2006, which I saw in The Barbican followed by  a Q and A with Guédiguian and Ariane Ascaride, is perhaps best forgotten.)

I know what Roy means about the film’s politics and lack of analysis but I’ve never really felt that Guédiguian was a particularly political director – despite the film’s political concerns and the explicit political discussion among the characters. He is, ultimately, more interested in the bonds between people than their social or economic stations. In that respect he might be better considered a humanist director. He is frequently compared to Marcel Pagnol (eg The Marius/ Fanny/Cesar (1931–36)) but a better comparison might be with Jean Renoir, especially in Renoir’s Popular Front period. Though to focus most of his films on working class characters might be considered a political act. As for “Marseilles isn’t quite like a wet Wednesday in Greenock or Salford”, I felt exactly the same at the very tragic ending of La ville est tranquille  when there is a wide shot taking in the clear blue sky and the Mediterranean and the sun-drenched white buildings of Marseille.

Incidentally, when I visited Marseilles a few years ago, after seeking out the bar which is the main location for Pagnol’s Marius trilogy (and being surprised to find there wasn’t even a photo or a poster on the wall connecting it to the film), I took a bus out to the Estaque district where Guédiguan sets many of his films. It looked a totally gentrified district with house prices to match. I suspect that Michel and Marie-Claire’s flat with the terrace where film ends would cost a pretty penny or eurocent!

Useful discussion on Guédiguian at Senses of Cinema

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