Even though she risked potential disaster in going from animation to live action, the gamble has fully paid off for Marjane Satrapi with Chicken with Plums. Best known for the Oscar-nominated Persopolis, based on her own graphic novel memoir about growing up in Iran, with this film, Satrapi has leapt from real life to magic realism. The result is an emotionally resonant delight.
Alongside co-director Vincent Parounnaud, Satrapi has again adapted one of her comics, which was also based on her personal history in Iran. But while Persepolis was autobiographical, the story of Chicken with Plums surrounds relatives whom she never met. Persepolis was an impressionistic recreation of what had Satrapi had experienced first hand, which made it perfectly suited to animation. This film is a constructed imagination of things that she never saw, only heard about in family get-togethers. It’s structured like memory, jumping around between the past, present, and future, all revolving around the single, important choice that one man makes.
That man is Nasser Ali Khan (Mathieu Almaric), and that choice is the one to end his own life. Nasser Ali was Satrapi’s great uncle, and he died under strange circumstances. In this telling of his tale, he decides to starve himself to death after the destruction of his favorite violin. A gifted musician, Nasser Ali finds that, without that instrument, he can no longer make anything beautiful, and he sees no point in living on further. But there’s more to his depression than that, as we see in flashbacks to his youth, when he carried on a torrid romance with a beautiful woman (Golshifteh Farahani).
Chicken with Plums is about love, and how it is intertwined with pain, and how pain is intertwined with art, and how art is intertwined with life. As Nasser Ali slowly approaches his end, his memories cohere into a clearer and clearer whole, until we can see how he has been made what he is as a man. We are the sum of our experiences, and the film demonstrates that with humor and grace.
Satrapi again demonstrates her elegant sense for using small, true-to-life details to make her characters come alive. A child ceaselessly singing on a bus trip, driving his fellow passengers to madness, is so relatable that it hurts. The actors all convey year’s worth of history with the smallest expressions and motions. And what makes that verisimilitude pop is how it mixes freely with outlandish fantasy. Nasser Ali meets the angel of death. His son’s future is portrayed as an American sitcom, full of broad, silly stereotypes. It’s the odd as a vehicle for the truth, and it makes the tragic elements all the more effective. It’s also incredibly funny.
The movie’s visual style is as close as one can find to modern day German expressionism without having to endure Tim Burton. Painted vistas and backgrounds lend a surrealism to the sets that works completely with the atmosphere of the story. As befitting the work of great animators, this could be a silent film and it would still make complete sense. The vibrant use of plum purples and stark whites suffuses every frame with a richly Persian feeling, and it helps set the mood perfectly. This is a luscious picture.
Almaric, with a constant expression of silent bemusement, is simply spectacular. Nasser Ali is an extremely sad man, but his performance turns him into a kind of operatic clown. His utterly serious commitment to self-pity makes him a ridiculous figure, even as we sympathize with him. He’s both a great artist and a great buffoon, and it’s all wrapped up in a world-weariness that’s deeply moving.
Maria de Medeiros also plays an important supporting role as Nasser Ali’s wife, Faranguisse. She has her own arc of pitiable confusion. She’s long loved a man who’s never loved her back, and now she can only stand by in frustrated despair as he slowly kills himself. Her biggest attempt to pull him out of his funk is to cook his favorite meal, which is the namesake of the movie. The chicken with plums symbolizes how life has lost all luster for Nasser Ali. All Faranguisse can do is watch, and Medeiros plays that forlorn helplessness so well.
Other actors come and go in memorable roles, such as Isabella Rossellini as Nasser Ali’s mother, and Edouard Baer as Azraël, the angel of death. They all have a lesson to impart to both Nasser Ali and the audience about life and its transience. A movie that plays around with time so much is of course deathly (sorry) concerned with time. It’s our most precious resource, the only one that can’t be recovered, and Nasser Ali wastes most of his. His story is the tragedy of losing love, and living, or rather existing, in its aftermath.
The plot also subtly alludes to the history of Iran. Satrapi cares deeply for her home country, and there’s an allegory to be read in this story about how a people lost their freedom. Most obviously, the love of Nasser Ali’s life is actually named Iran! It takes place against a background of the 1950’s coup in Tehran. In this way, the film carries even more thematic weight, hearkening to nostalgia in the best way possible, as it refers to a time that genuinely was better than the way things are now.
Chicken with Plums is sad, funny, and romantic in a way that’s reminiscent of how life itself is often some combination of the three. It’s one of the best movies of last year that we’re finally getting this year. Since they’ve proven themselves in both animation and live action, who knows where Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Parounnaud will go next. They make warm, wonderfully humanistic movies, the kind that makes you want to do something risky, just so you can look back on it later.
Born and raised in rural Maryland, sanschindel now lives and works in Los Angeles. He was once a somewhat normal person, before the movies made him weird (he wouldn’t have it any other way, though). He loves all kinds of movies, never discriminating based on genre or prestige. Keep your mind open, and all sorts of wonderful things will fly in. He blogs about documentaries at http://daysofdocs.wordpress.com/. You can follow his random brain vomitations at https://twitter.com/DanSchindel.