Directors Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud prove they are as visually adept with live action cinema as they are with animation, unveiling Chicken With Plums, their follow-up to their much hailed 2007 debut, Persepolis, as an extravagant adaptation of Satrapi’s own graphic novel. As sumptuously gratifying as their film is, there’s a definite inadequacy in its naïve considerations of love and commitment that casts a hollow pallor over the proceedings. But that’s not to say you won’t be enchanted by the tragic melancholy buoyed by vibrant imagery and delightful, though distracting, multiple asides.
Set in 1950’s Tehran, we meet a famed and downtrodden violinist, Nasser Ali (Mathieu Amalric), desperately searching to replace his beloved instrument, recently broken beyond repair. Alas, he’s unable to find an instrument that compares, and decides that he will simply lie in his bed and wait to die, despite his concerned wife (Maria de Medeiros) and children. We’re told that eight days from making this decision, he does die. Backing up to his decision, we get a recount of these last eight days, each of which includes pieces of Nasser Ali’s story, relating memories of past, present and future that brought him to his current state. Unrequited love and an unhappy marriage, of course, play a part, while the Angel of Death visits Nasser Ali to inform him of how his children’s lives will play out.
Including some delightful cameos for Isabella Rossellini, Chiara Mastroianni, and Jamel Debbouze, Chicken With Plums, is influenced heavily by German expressionism, but melds several distinct visual styles, including sequences of animation, that give it an optical articulation of its own. At times, there’s almost too much artistry at work, creating considerable distraction from the tale’s overarching thrust and confusing who we’re really supposed to be focusing on. Certainly the Angel of Death’s presence feels inspired, which includes a smoky noir version of Chiara Mastroianni as Nasser Ali’s adult daughter, and a mean-spirited and overly long portrait of his son’s future in the American Midwest with a dumb blonde and fat kids, but, in retrospect, are unnecessary diversions. As a result, the inadvertent tragic figure of Chicken With Plums turns out to be Faringuisse, excellently played by Maria de Madeiros (strikingly dolled and looking like an aged Lily Cole). We don’t see her future, only the past circumstances that brought her towards Nasser Ali, a man that’s the love of her life, though she’s certainly not his. His only kind words to her are when she makes his favorite dish, chicken with plums.
It’s finally revealed that the mysterious woman named Iran (Golshifteh Farahani) was the woman from Nasser Ali’s past that holds his heart. Unable to support her as a musician, Iran’s father does not allow their union, setting off this sad chain of events that leads to Nasser Ali’s final decision to give up on life. There’s a definite morbidity underlying Satrapi’s film, with Nasser Ali calling his children to him as he purposefully tries to die, in half-assed attempt to leave them with some final wisdom on life, which they are too young to appreciate. And it’s no coincidence that his true love is a beautiful woman named Iran, named for the country for which the tale is set, though populated by foreign figures, a foreign language, and filmed in a land foreign to both setting and key players.
This diverse and complicated distance perhaps dampens the tragic effect of what’s really a treatise on love, albeit a fairy tale tinged rendition of the melancholy curse of it. But the real power of Satrapi and Paronnaud’s film is in what it’s not explicitly depicting, but what it’s implying. While Almaric gives an impressive and entertaining performance as the heartbroken violinist, his creators have really used him as the moral to a fable on love, and their secret is hidden in the title of their film. There’s a moment towards the finale reminiscent of the end of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), where the star crossed lovers cross paths later in life, flashes of what coulda/shoulda/woulda been obviously sparked in their respective minds. But while that famed French musical classic revels in this love tragedy, the aftertaste of Chicken With Plums reveals that our protagonist is utterly selfish and naive, dying for a fantasy of what he thinks love is. For if he had possessed Iran, who knows what that love would have really become. Instead he lived an ungrateful life, pursuing his dreams as a musician with a woman that loved him dearly, bore him children, and made him his favorite dish.