‘Persepolis’ Directors Charm Once Again With Whimsical, Wonderful ‘Chicken With Plums’ [Tribeca Review]
Posted on Tuesday, April 24th, 2012 by Angie Han
In 2007, Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi made a splash with their acclaimed feature debut Persepolis, an adaptation of Satrapi’s autobiographical comic. For their new follow-up Chicken With Plums, the pair have drawn upon another of Satrapi’s tomes, this one the true-ish tale of Satrapi’s renowned musician uncle.
Superficially, the two projects seem like opposites. Where Persepolis was animated in stark black and white, their sophomore effort is (mostly) live-action and bursting with vivid color. What hasn’t changed, however, is Paronnaud and Satrapi’s proclivity for producing bold visuals and mixing serious emotion with playful humor.
Set in ’50s Tehran, Chicken With Plums introduces us to Nasser Ali (Mathieu Amalric) near the very end of his life. Despondent over the destruction of his prized violin, he tries to replace it with the Stradivarius instrument once played by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart himself. When even that fails to satisfy Nasser Ali, however, he realizes that all the savor has gone out of his life. He decides he might as well end it once and for all, and dons pajamas to wait for Death. After eight days, it arrives. Then the film skips through time and space to reveal not only how Nasser Ali spent that period, but how he got to this crossroads, how his loved ones got there with him, and even how his family fares many years into the future.
Initially, Chicken With Plums doesn’t seem to much more than a quirkier-than-average comedy. Nasser Ali and his wife Faringuisse (Maria de Medeiros) seem like a caricature of the unhappily married couple. He is distant and self-important, placing his craft above the well-being of his wife and kids; she is a brittle shrew who needs little provocation to scream at her husband. When he pictures his death in a number of illustratively gruesome scenes, it’s played more for laughs than tears.
As the movie carries on and Nasser Ali creeps ever closer to death, however, Chicken With Plums gives itself to increasingly creative flights of fancy. The musician recalls his artistic training in a series of whimsical semi-animated sequences; remembers candy-colored sunsets with his first love (Golshifteh Farahani); dreams about being smothered in Sophia Loren’s giant breasts; imagines his dramatic death being ruined by an ill-timed fart from his son; and even converses with Death himself toward the end of the week. All the while, so gradually that I hardly noticed at first, the film is transforming itself into a heartbreaking tale of love lost and a life badly lived.
It’s to Amalric’s credit that he’s able to play not just the comedic and dramatic sides of his character, but all of Nasser Ali’s often contradictory facets. He’s both a cartoon and a flesh-and-blood man, a romantic hero and an unfeeling cad, a young idealist and an embittered middle-aged man, and Amalric moves easily through all of his many iterations. The supporting actors hold their own against him as well. Chiara Mastroianni, playing his morose grown-up daughter Lili, gets some particularly big laughs.
That Chicken With Plums tackles so many different styles and follows so many different tangents is part of what makes it so fun. Inevitably, though, it’s also what makes the film feel slightly uneven. One sequence, which spells out the future of Nasser Ali’s son (Christian Friedel) via a satire of American pop culture, is acerbic in a way that’s undeniably entertaining, but clashes with the rest of the movie.
But such missteps are happily rare. On the whole, Chicken With Plums does a deft job of balancing its sweeter and darker sides. Despite its fairy-tale feel, Chicken With Plums isn’t a story that ends in happily ever after; at the same time, it’s probably the most exuberant movie about suicide I’ll see this year. I left the theater smiling and aching all at once.
/Film rating: 8.0 out of 10.0