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Soul Food

film plumChicken With Plums’ is a luscious, imaginative love story

First there was Persepolis, a gorgeously rendered black-and-white animated film about growing up female in Iran based on the graphic novel memoir by Marjane Satrapi. Now, Satrapi and her filmmaking partner Vincent Paronnaud are back with a splendid sophomore effort, Chicken With Plums.

Although based on another Satrapi graphic novel, the new film is a stylistic departure from Persepolis in many interesting ways: it’s live-action, it tells a soulful, romantic fictional drama, and it’s shot in delirious color.

In Chicken With Plums, the filmmakers take a fanciful approach to a story supposedly inspired by Satrapi’s uncle, a concert musician, turning it into a wistful, allegorical, fairy tale-like drama. Although shot in French with an international cast, the film story is set in Tehran in 1958, during the last eight days of its protagonist’s life. The narrative pirouettes back and forth between past, present, and future, a device that allows the filmmakers to observe several decades of Iranian culture while gradually revealing the love story at its core.

Mathieu Almaric stars as Nasser-Ali Khan, an internationally acclaimed concert violinist with a dilemma: his cherished violin, given to him years ago by his beloved teacher, has been broken. No other instrument plays as sweetly, not even a Stradivarius that belonged to Mozart himself, which Nasser-Ali takes a day-long bus journey to buy from an opium-smoking antiques dealer. Losing all hope that he will ever play again, Nasser-Ali decides to die.

In a blackly comic montage, he considers and rejects several unpleasant forms of suicide, deciding instead to simply take to his bed and await Death. Nothing can change his mind, not his angry wife, Faringuisse (Maria de Medeiros), complaining that she has to work to support their two children since he refuses to play, nor the attempted intervention by his brother, Abdi (Eric Caravaca), the would-be Communist revolutionary, nor his own memories of the joys and pleasures of life.

These memories, along with dreams, fantasies, and glimpses into the past and future lives of Nasser-Ali’s loved ones, ping off each other throughout the film, weaving together a visually enthralling mosaic of his life. We meet his mother (a delicious Isabella Rossellini), advocate of the smart, post-war “modern woman” who insisted he marry Faringuisse. We laugh over his doomed attempt to impart wisdom to his uninterested kids (using an exalted vision of Socrates as a role model), visit his childhood (where he’s denounced as a “bad seed”), and watch as he carelessly shatters the dreams of his daughter, Lili, at a puppet show. (Chiara Mastroianni pops up in wicked glimpses of the adult Lili as a tough, card-dealing prophetess of disillusion.)

Meanwhile, in its elliptical way, the movie gradually peels back petal-like layers to reveal the aborted love story at its center. As we watch the young Nasser-Ali fall hopelessly in love with the beauteous Irane (Golshifteh Farahani), a dreamy goddess of youth and promise, we learn how the violin becomes a metaphor for his broken heart, impossible to repair. And yet, his wife, Faringuisse, introduced as a shrew at first, also emerges as the sympathetic heroine of her own unrequited love story.

The imagery is a constant delight, provocative, playful and seductive. Death arrives as a jokester in a hooded robe and a pair of glittery horns; nothing in visible within his black cowl but two bright eyes and a Cheshire Cat grin. Nasser-Ali’s music teacher is a white-robed, wild-haired old guru who lives high up in a mountain cave, like a mystic. Scenes are composed with the succinct artistry of comic panels (and occasionally animated), while surreal color runs riot throughout.

Not all of the vignettes work. 

A flash-forward to the future of Nasser-Ali’s son as an adult émigré to America, raising blubbery kids in a candy-colored suburbia, is trite and discordant. 

film chickenw

And it’s too bad there is not moreemotional resonance to Nasser-Ali’s perfunctory love affair with Irane. But, then it’s mostly metaphor; Irane (in English, Iran) is the ancient name Iranians have always called their homeland, known for centuries to outsiders as Persia. And Nasser-Ali’s sorrow for the lost promise of Iranian reform that fluttered briefly in the 1950s is the veiled engine that drives this luscious and inventive film. 

CHICKEN WITH PLUMS

★★★1/2 (out of four)  Watch film trailer >>>

With Mathieu Amalric, Maria de Medeiros, and Golshifteh Farahani.
Written and directed by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Rated PG-13. 93 minutes.
In French with English subtitles.

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