When Robert Guediguian unleashed his latest film, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, at the Cannes Film Festival last month, critics were quick to describe it as the veteran French filmmaker's return to his roots.
A member of the Left Party - established in 2008 by frustrated members of the Socialist Party - the 57-year-old director spent the first two decades of his career making social-realist films set in his hometown, Marseilles. But since 2005, he has veered away from his favourite milieu with movies about the final months of France's last socialist president (The Last Mitterrand); a cardiologist's search for her father and her ancestral roots (The Voyage to Armenia); a kidnap-and-revenge thriller (Lady Jane); and the resistance against the German occupation (Army of Crime).
Despite its title, Snows sees Guediguian return to Marseilles. The story is about recently laid-off dock worker Michel (played by Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and his wife, Marie-Claire (Ariane Ascaride), a couple who, at the start of the film, express unease about how 'bourgeois' they have become.
Their lives are disrupted by a brutal robbery at home and while recovering from their ordeal, they are shocked to discover that the young Christophe (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet), who was retrenched alongside Michel, was behind the hold-up.
Rather than baying for his blood, the couple delve into their ally-turned-assailant's life and discover he needed money to care for his two younger siblings. It is an epiphany of sorts, as the couple realise there are people much poorer than they are. 'The working class still exists, but it's just changed its looks,' says the director, leaning forward in his chair inside the Unifrance pavilion beside Cannes' harbour. 'We no longer have [that many] workers in factories wearing blue overalls. But we have people working in corporations who are wearing white shirts but are receiving the minimum salary.'
Snows highlights the fact that there is no longer unity within this huge social class, Guediguian says.
Similar themes have laced all his recent work, including even Lady Jane. Ostensibly it's a genre exercise, in which three ex-cons reconvene to rescue the abducted teenage son of one of the gang. But things go bloodily awry. It shows how money can set individuals at war with others who might have been their allies. 'We've been told in the past 40 years that individuals are the most important thing rather than the community,' says Guediguian. 'But all kinds of [progressive] efforts have to be the result of a group rather than a simple individual.'
Lady Jane screens on June 9, 7.45pm, and June 12, 9.45pm, at the Broadway Cinematheque in Le French May's Film Noir retrospective