Oscar-nominated auteurs Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud spice their second movie with an impressively eclectic and exotic array of cinematic ingredients, but the story's sour central character keeps “Chicken with Plums” from becoming a truly satisfying film.
For the follow-up to her 2007 autobiographical debut film “Persepolis,” which earned an Academy Award nomination for best animated feature, Satrapi, along with co-writer/director Paronnaud, uses live-action to tell a story based on her great-uncle and adapted from another of her graphic novels.
Set primarily in a fairy-tale pretty version of 1958 Tehran, the French-language fable stars Mathieu Amalric (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) as renowned musician Nasser-Ali, who is desperately seeking a replacement for his beloved violin, which his shrewish wife, Faringuisse (Maria de Medeiros), shattered in the midst of a bitter argument.
Nasser-Ali even travels from Iran to India to obtain, at great expense, a Stradivarius once owned by Mozart. But he woefully realizes that music doesn't sound the same without his adored instrument.
So the melodramatic musician decides life isn't worth living. Too delicate to select a more direct method of suicide, he simply takes to bed and waits for death.
The story unfolds in a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards, so we learn quickly that Nasser-Ali manages to passive-aggressively off himself in eight days. In that time, the Angel of Death (Edouard Baer), who narrates the film, reveals the sad circumstances that led to the violinist's fatal decision and the lasting effect the suicide has on Nasser-Ali's two young children, Lili (Enna Balland) and Cyrus (Mathis Bour). French actress Chiara Mastroianni steals the film playing the adult Lili as a hard-living gambler.
Nasser-Ali's tale of love, loss and art is so timeworn, it's practically tattered: He was once deeply in love with a luminescent clockmaker's daughter named Iran (Golshifteh Farahani) — the tragic story is undoubtedly meant to echo Satrapi's complicated history with her homeland — but her father refused to let her enter a financially shaky marriage to a musician. Iran declined Nasser-Ali's request to run away with him, leaving the violinist to pour his personal pain into his music and helping him achieve new artistic heights. At the urging of his imperious mother (Isabella Rossellini), he started a family with Faringuisse even though he didn't love her back.
The story may be as old as art itself, but Satrapi and Paronnaud deserve kudos for imparting it in a wholly original and unpredictable way. “Chicken with Plums” fuses a variety of distinctive cinematic styles, a hefty measure of magical realism, a dash of German Expressionism and a pinch of French New Wave. A gorgeously animated fable-within-the-fable is a particularly tantalizing highlight, but the movie veritably overflows with lush, dreamlike visuals, richly enhanced by Olivier Bernet's score.
Still, the filmmakers get too clever for their own good, ignoring a basic tenet of storytelling: If you don't care about your characters, no one else will. Nasser-Ali isn't just unpleasant, he's a bore with his constant whining and unceasing self-absorption. The nonlinear narrative doesn't give us many reasons to understand, sympathize or even tolerate him until moments before the credits roll, and even then, viewers may still have the overwhelming desire to smack the character and tell him to get over himself.
Worse, the auteurs take one of the most likable characters — Nasser-Ali's sweet-natured, perpetually happy but neglected son — and condemn him to a horrible fate in a mean-spirited flash-forward that casts him as a clueless father in a garish parody of American life.
With its beautiful blend of cinematic homages, film fans should sample “Chicken with Plums” but be prepared for the bitter aftertaste of watching a good film that should really be a great one.
— Brandy McDonnell
‘Chicken with Plums'
Starring: Mathieu Amalric, Maria de Medeiros, Golshifteh Farahani, Isabella Rossellini. (Some drug content, violent images, sensuality and smoking)