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Last updated: 14 June 2018.

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Class Distinctions

            

A review of two films – Anne Edmonds

Films about characters the Tory chief whip would label “plebs” are less frequent than those about the middle class – still rarer if they do not feature what David Cameron calls “problem families” on “sink estates”. The British director Shane Meadows specialises in this genre with Nottingham based films like Twentyfour Seven and, my favourite, A Room for Romeo Brass; Andrea Arnold’s excellent Fish Tank, about a teenage girl on an Essex council estate, is in the same mould.

The French director Robert Guediguian concentrates instead on working class characters who fit Ed Miliband’s  “hard working families”, which cliché seems to mean drug free manual workers with jobs and not known to the police. Guediguian‘s films are set in L’Estaque, the dockyard area of Marseilles where he was born and bred. He works with the same actors in most films, rather like Mike Leigh who frequently casts Timothy Spall, Lesley Manville and Jim Broadbent. Guediguian’s  latest film is The Snows of Kilimanjaro which, despite its title, shares the Marseilles setting.

The film opens with a dockyard ballot to decide which twenty workers are to be made redundant. Michel, the senior shop-steward, in a gesture of solidarity with his workmates, insists that his name be included – he loses his job. His family and friends rally round although his brother-in-law, Raoul, sees his participation in the ballot as a pointless piece of self-sacrifice. At a party to mark what will, thanks to globalisation, be the end of his working life, they present him with a holiday in Africa and a large cash sum to spend while away. The party ends with their singing the sixties ballad The Snows of Kilimanjaro – the whole sequence is rather mawkish.

Another, much younger worker, Christophe, is also sacked: he sees the union’s acceptance of job losses as a spineless retreat and feels Michel sold out to the bosses. Burdened by unemployment and debt, Christophe carries out a violent robbery in which Raoul is injured; Christophe is arrested. 

                          

Michel visits Christophe at the police station but is met with a contemptuous rebuff as his sympathy seems to Christophe  nothing but woolly liberalism; sitting on the roof terrace of their (owned!) home Michel and his wife, Marie-Claire, remember themselves as a young couple looking up from the street to envy a comfortable petit-bourgeois pair – is this how the younger generation see them?

Guediguian’s films are flawed by sentimentality – like Ken Loach and Paul Laverty, he paints all workers as good-hearted heroes; but, unlike the British pair, he seems aware of this weakness and cleverly manipulates  the audience’s view of his characters to counterbalance it: Christophe wins our sympathy when he first appears as a loving elder brother looking after his fatherless siblings when their mother deserts them – we are shocked when he becomes a violent crook; Michel, the caring socialist, gets so exasperated by Christophe’s rejection that he ends up socking him one; when Michel and Marie-Claire cancel the African trip and use the money to take Christophe’s young brothers into their home while he is in prison, their grown-up children, previously loyal and loving to Michel , confront him angrily – they want him to lavish all his care and cash on their offspring, his grand-children; Christophe’s mother turns out not to be the feckless ,good-time-girl the audience were led to imagine but a woman driven to desperation by a lifetime with men who leave her pregnant and holding the baby – she wants, and gets, a fulfilling job.

In this way, Guediguian sets up situations to rouse audience sympathy or animosity, only to make a neat reversal as an antidote to sentimentality – of course , we never see the black-hearted bosses but their conversion to goodness would be too much to accept. Unfortunately, even if we can forgive the maudlin party sequence, the clever reversal device is counterbalanced by an intrusive and sickly-sweet musical score. Also, Guediguian’s direction, though competent, is rather conventional and one-paced.

Despite these flaws, Snows of Kilimanjaro tells a good story and is well worth seeing. But the next film under review, About Elly by the Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, is a brilliant piece of cinema.

It is Farhadi’s second film and earned its UK exhibition because his third, A Separation, won the 2012 Oscar for Best Foreign Film.

About Elly takes us into the world of the genuine bourgeoisie when former university friends (three married couples plus Ahmad, the brother of the group’s queen-bee wife, Sepideh, and a quiet young woman, Elly) rent a country villa for a long weekend. What starts as a carefree, almost adolescent weekend of uninhibited shrieking, laughter, dancing and singing ends in tragedy, lies, relationship breakdown and violence.  Anyone who  has seen Satyajit Ray’s masterpiece, Days and Nights in the Forest, or Antonioni’s over-rated L’Avventura, will be familiar with the genre of the holiday that changes lives and leads to emotional devastation.

Ahmad has just returned to Tehran from Germany and a divorce from his German wife. It is the over confident and manipulative Sepedeh  who invites Elly, her daughter’s primary schoolteacher and unknown to the rest of the group; despite knowing that Elly is engaged to be married to Alireza, Sepideh plans to make a match for her brother with Elly. Alireza’s appearance in the second half of the film is the culmination of all the deceit that precedes it, including a shocking scene where the three children are coached by a parent into how to tell lies about what they saw happen.

The group’s behaviour is very different from what a western audience might expect in Iran, a country our press presents as a bastion of Islamic fanaticism – although it is noticeable that the women do keep their headscarves in place throughout the film  even when swimming in the sea – quite a feat. A brief but very telling shot of the villa janitor’s young son watching their antics with a look of total bewilderment may be more representative of Iranian attitudes – it tells the audience in a few seconds what would take a lesser director several pages of scripted dialogue to convey less effectively.

This subtle film is full of such moments; the quality of the acting and the dazzling camerawork – often handheld to show constant movement (but without the vertigo-inducing jerks when used by a less accomplished director of photography than Hossein Jaffarian) create suspense and ensures that the audience is fully involved with every emotional twist in a complex story. And all this is done without any musical soundtrack – Elly’s theme is used only behind the credits at the start and end of the film (Robert Guediguian take note!).

I cannot praise About Elly too highly and urge readers to see it – anyone not lucky enough to live near cinemas like Edinburgh’s Filmhouse and Cameo should soon be able to catch it on DVD (Oscars do have some value!)

Final note – neither Snows of Kilimanjaro  nor About Elly are the type of visually dependent films which need cinema projection to be effective.

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