One week after Miguel Gomes’ delightfully strange Tabu arrived on our screens, we now welcome a more standard-issue example of contemporary European art-cinema in The Snows of Kilimanjaro by Marseille’s tirelessly productive writer-director Robert Guédiguian. It’s his seventeenth feature in 30 years and, astonishingly, his sixteenth collaboration with his wife Ariane Ascaride: a tiny, deceptively sparrow-like actress who on thespian merit deserves at least as much prominence as her more-ballyhooed compatriots such as Juliette Binoche, Audrey Tautou and Isabelle Huppert.
Here Ascaride is Marie-Claire, happily married to dockside middle-manager Michel (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), the pair not long away from retirement. But a series of unexpected developments, starting with Michel’s noble, self-sacrificing decision to take redundancy, threaten their plans – which include an eagerly-anticipated safari. Guédiguian has always had a very keen eye for socio-economic detail and he sketches Marie-Claire and Michel’s particular milieu – and the way these sometime radicals have gradually settled into cosy middle-class complacency – with unfussy eloquence.
It’s a shame, then, that a couple of his script’s key happenings veer towards contrivance and melodrama – rather like Paul Laverty’s work with Ken Loach, Guédiguian’s cross-channel equivalent – and that Guédiguian and co-screenwriter Jean-Louis Milesi (their inspiration a poem by Victor Hugo) struggle to find a satisfactory balance between class-conflict commentary and character-based humanism. In the end, he falls some way short of Aki Kaurismäki’s much more fanciful but also much more coherent and consistent variation on similar themes: Le Havre, set in a rather scruffier port at the other end of the country and featuring Darroussin in a prominent supporting role. Check that one out on DVD instead – or go see Tabu.
29th August 2012
written for Tribune magazine