Chicken with Plums is the latest live-action collaboration from Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, the creative minds behind the 2007 award-winning animated film Persepolis.
Like its predecessor, Chicken with Plums is an adaptation of one of Satrapi’s graphic novels. With an appropriate balance of emotion and humor, Satrapi adds a delicate yet effective atmosphere of magic and fantasy to create a mesmerizing film of love, love lost and what motivates us to move forward.
The story begins with an argument between Nasser-Ali Khan (Matheiu Amalric), a struggling but nonetheless exceptional violinist, and his wife Faringuisse (Maria de Medeiros). The altercation between the two escalates to the point where Faringuisse destroys her husband’s prized Stradivarius violin, and when Nasser-Ali’s search for a replacement proves futile, he decides to confine himself to his bed, hoping he’ll die soon. (As though aware of audiences hoping for a happy ending, the film soon establishes that, yes, Nasser-Ali will die in eight days.)
Much of the drama of the film focuses on a reflection of Nasser-Ali’s broken spirit. Chicken with Plums, however, not only reveals what led to this point and what determined Nasser-Ali’s decisions but also highlights the reason he played the violin with such passion and concentration. Audiences see this elaborated through mesmerizing dream sequences that include a gigantic Sophia Loren and a conversation with Azraël, the Angel of Death. The audience also flash ahead to see what becomes of Khan’s two children after his death; his older child, Lili, becomes a grizzled femme fatale and his hyperactive son, Cyrus, moves to America and raises a nuclear family that seems worthy of a trashy American sitcom. These scenes have just the right mixture of pathos and melancholy to create something theatrical yet very personal.
The anchor of the film, however, is the story of Nasser-Ali’s youth and his romance with Irâne, played by Tehran-native Golshifteh Farahani, whom he was forbidden to marry. The audience follows Nasser-Ali as his broken heart leads him to marry Faringuisse in line with the wishes of his mother, Parvine, played by Isabella Rosellini in a brief but impactful role. Nasser-Ali’s uses that heartbreak, however, as motivation for his music, and the film suggests this is partially why he is able to play the violin so well.
This idea persists throughout the film and serves as its saddest theme: The only way that we can transcend our life through our creative talents is only after the loss of something important to us. This was also true of Persepolis, which focused on a loss of culture and family. But in Chicken with Plums, this theme speaks to the heart of an artist more so than a citizen’s.
The acting is strong across the board, and the film is very much carried by Mathieu Amalric in the lead role. He manages to portray a character that is arrogant and downright unsympathetic as very relatable, and as viewers come to understand Khan’s motivation, what originally seemed an avoidable end becomes the only appropriate one.
One issue with the film, however, is that it never really establishes how a man so renowned for his violin skills is still a struggling artist.
Strong performances also come from Farahani as Irane, and Maria de Medeiros as Faringuisse, a person who has every right to despise her uncaring husband yet still tries to find a reason to love a man she’s cared for since she was a young girl. Eric Caravaca as Nasser’s socialist older brother, Abdi, also helps brings some stability to the film.
Aside from the standout on-screen talent, Chicken with Plum’s setting also plays a heavy role in the film’s effectiveness. The film takes place mostly in the city of Tehran, Iran, during the 1950s. In comparison to the country’s perception in Persepolis, which depicts a fundamentalist hierarchy that clamped down on the freedoms of its own people, this is an Iran with a proud, liberal, fiercely independent middle class capable to Europe during those years.
The presentation of the city and the culture is beautiful yet tragic. In fact, the stylistic cinematography seems to reference the neo-Realism of 1950s Italian cinema, yet merges the style with a subtle storybook-esque aesthetic. In many shots, the backgrounds in the distance are illustrated, and the sky is filled with rustic watercolor hues, giving the sensation that the intention of the film is not necessarily a realistic presentation of life back then, but rather a personal recollection of a world that no longer exists as it once was.
Chicken with Plums manages to match the creative aesthetic of Persepolis and translates it into a touching and beautiful rendition of 1950s Tehran. With so many films from the region being politically minded, it’s refreshing to see a film that speaks to higher universal concepts of artistry and love.