‘Courage is overcoming one’s own flaws, suffering from them but not being overburdened by them, and following one’s path. Courage is loving life, looking at death with tranquillity; it is reaching for an ideal and understanding what is real; it is acting, and giving oneself to great causes without knowing what reward this profound universe will reserve for our efforts, not even if any reward will be given.
Jean Juarès, ‘Speech to the Youth’, 1903
Jean Juarès, ‘Speech to the Youth’, 1903
‘Remember: with great power comes great responsibility.'
Uncle Ben, Spider-Man (Sam Raimi, 2002)
The Snows of Kilimanjaro introduces its principled protagonist Michel (Jean-Pierre Darroussin, most recently seen on GFT screens in Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre) in the midst of a terse lottery draw on a Marseille dockyard. Every time a name is announced, an ashen-faced worker steps forward to identify himself the unlucky selectee – one of a raft of twenty redundancies negotiated by the union in a bid to prevent wider job losses. As the union boss behind this unfortunate compromise, Michel expresses ‘no regrets’. He conducts the draw with stoicism and gravitas, fuelled by a seemingly irreducible belief in the task’s necessity – a utilitarian effort to sacrifice a few comrades for the good of the many. As if to prove his ethical mettle, the nineteenth name announced is his own; though permitted to exempt himself, Michel declines special treatment. To some, including brother-in-law and colleague Raoul (Gérard Meylan), his decision is baffling – a stubborn and unnecessary martyrdom. But to Michel, to act otherwise would betray the socialist beliefs by which he defines himself, solidarity taking precedence over self-preservation. From the outset, then, Michel is presented as a man of unimpeachable ideological conviction, though as events will later transpire to expose, this robust moral code isn’t without limits or contradictions.
The two sources quoted above – a turn-of-the-century leader of the French Left and the fictional guardian of an American comic book character – serve as unlikely twin symbols of Michel’s moral doctrine. Jean Juarès is the more obvious idol for a fifty-something unionist: a socialist icon assassinated for his antimilitarist beliefs, Juarès perfectly exemplifies a certain shade of self-sacrificing politics, and it’s from him that Michel quotes while clearing out his locker. ‘Courage resides in watching one’s spinning machine or loom that not one thread snaps’ Michel intones, peeling a black and white photo of Juarès from the locker’s door. But the references to ‘spinning’ and ‘threads’ also contain a sly pun: beneath the Juarès photograph lies a second blu-tacked image, a poster of web-slinging superhero Spider-man, depicted spinning some socio-judicial threads of his own. Michel’s wife Marie-Claire (Ariane Ascaride) later name-checks both Jaurès and Spider-man in a single breath, prodding her husband out of self-pity by provocatively comparing him to his heroes, and concluding ‘you’re just an old man on early retirement. You’ve lost the power the union gave you and you’re an ordinary man again, facing his weaknesses.’ Her calculated dismissal has the desired effect, rousing Michel from a defeatist slump – restoring his power, in a sense.
Spider-man fulfils other roles in the narrative: a comic book gifted to Michel on the occasion of his and Marie-Claire’s 30th wedding anniversary acts as both an emblematic link to Michel’s youth, and later as a concrete plot device, when it is stolen as part of a violent robbery. Additionally, Michel’s admiration for comic book heroics hints at underlying tensions in his political certitudes, with Spidey’s all-American exceptionalism implicitly at odds with other aspects of the former docker’s belief system. The gap between ideals and actions is evident at the anniversary party, a lavishly bourgeois affair. The giant profiterole tower – so large it takes two to carry – is particularly symbolic, the desert’s grandiosity contrasting strongly with a later scene in which two young boys react excitedly to a simple jar of chocolate spread – evidently an uncommon pleasure in their household. (For British audiences, the immense croquembouche may also carry an echo of the Ferrero Rocher ambassador’s reception – an enduring image of luxurious indulgence this side of the channel).
Michel and Marie-Claire’s relative comfort is further underscored by frequent scenes involving barbecues and mealtimes; Michel’s forced retirement may not be an ideal situation, but the couple are clearly not about to go hungry. Unfortunately, this basic reassurance is not universally shared – a disparity brought vividly into focus by the aforementioned robbery. The subsequent revelation of the perpetrator’s tangled motives carries another echo of Marvel’s arachnoid vigilante; if power and responsibility are as indelibly intertwined as Uncle Ben stresses (by way, it’s worth acknowledging, of Voltaire), then Michel’s actions as union boss share a modicum of liability for the break-in, for reasons that this note will refrain from spoiling.
Writer/director Robert Guédiguian based aspects of The Snows of Kilimanjaro on Victor Hugo’s poem ‘How Good are the Poor’, in which a husband and wife independently decide to act selflessly, instinctively certain the other will share their altruism. Taking the poem’s sentimental climax as a starting inspiration, Guédiguian worked backwards, re-versioning Hugo’s premise for a contemporary setting. Consequently, while the film starts with a convincingly messy quandary laced with credible self-doubt, its complexities are gradually ironed smooth to fit a pre-decided, all-but untroubled happy ending (set, incidentally, at another barbecue). Yet what it lacks in verisimilitude it makes up for in thematic coherence, as Guédiguian successfully marries the poem’s belief in human kindness with Juarès’ definition of courage – with a little of the moral absolutism associated with the comic book form also discernible. Michel and Marie-Claire’s good deeds may not involve city-levelling battles with mutant lizard-men, but their understated compassion is presented as equally heroic.
Dr Christopher Buckle
Researcher and Journalist
 ‘Interview with Robert Guédiguian’, Snows of Kilimanjaro Electronic Press Kit, accessed 12 September 2012 at http://www.rendezvouswithfrenchcinema.com/presskit/snow.pdf