Film Review: Chicken with Plums

The first live-action movie by the <i>Persepolis </i>filmmaking team of Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud is not as engaging as their animation debut, but is beautifully scored and well-acted.
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Chicken with Plums, the story of a despondent musician, marks a shift to live-action for the Persepolis animation team of Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud. Based on Satrapi’s graphic novel of the same name, and inspired by family history, Chicken with Plums is the second in a trilogy that began with Persepolis and that will end with the team’s next film, The Eleventh Laureate. Reminiscent of Persepolis in its storytelling style and its Eastern flavor, Chicken with Plums is differentiated by the fact that it is not overtly political. The debut film, the tale of Satrapi’s childhood, and her eventual departure from post-revolutionary Iran, is critical of the country’s initial capitulation to the West, as well as its transformation to theocracy.

Chicken with Plums is based on the life of Satrapi’s relative, a popular tar player, here transformed into a famous violinist, Nasser-Ali (Mathieu Amalric). The real-life musician died under mysterious circumstances, as does his fictional counterpart. When the film opens, Nasser’s life has already been dramatically altered by the destruction of his violin; the loss of the instrument, a gift from his mentor, has lessened his desire to play. At first, he hopes to regain it by buying a Stradivarius, but even the possession of that fine instrument fails to lift his spirits. A chance encounter with his first love, Iran (Golshifteh Farahani), further deepens his depression when she seems not to recognize him. Out of work, and at odds with his wife Faringuisse (Maria de Medeiros), a woman he has never loved, Nasser decides to commit suicide. Rejecting all of the common methods, he simply takes to his bed to await Azraël (Edouard Baer), the angel of death.

Nasser’s lost love, Iran, is named for Satrapi’s birthplace, and Chicken with Plums is as much a metaphor for her own grief as it is a story of her protagonist’s lifelong yearning for the woman he was prevented from marrying. As Persepolis explains, Satrapi emigrated from Iran when religious restrictions made life unbearable for her. She left behind her parents, as well as her beloved grandmother, who died a few months after she arrived in France. While her protagonist in Chicken with Plums is engaging, he is far less emotionally accessible than Marjane, Satrapi’s animated double in Persepolis—and the narrative arc of Chicken with Plums is decidedly downhill.

The happiest part of Nasser’s life unfolds in non-sequential flashbacks so that Chicken with Plums, named for the protagonist’s favorite dish, lacks the compelling dramatic structure of Persepolis. That film’s first-person narration anchors the story; in Chicken with Plums, tangential subplots disrupt the flow of an already tangled narrative. The movie is nevertheless well-acted and beautifully scored, and draws from the team’s love of classic films. One sequence of Nasser at school, for instance, is rendered in a German Expressionist style, while others are reminiscent of the French New Wave.

The movie’s swirling resolution, a depiction of death, is a sublime example of the filmmaking team’s artistry—and the nihilism that drives Chicken with Plums. It is there in Persepolis, too, but is felt less profoundly. In both movies, the artist-protagonist is suddenly stripped of everything that has up until then fueled their creativity and their desire for life. At the end of Persepolis, after Marjane lands in Paris, the taxi driver asks her where she has been. “Iran,” she answers, with finality, as though it explains her entire life—and it does. Satrapi claims that she and Paronnaud share all their filmmaking tasks, but the stories are hers alone, and they are not for the faint of heart.