Tribeca 2012: ‘Chicken With Plums’ returns Marjane Satrapi’s work to the big screen

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Chicken With Plums

Chicken With Plums (Poulet aux Prunes)
Written by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud
Directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud
France, 2011

The last time she adapted her own graphic novel into a film, Marjane Satrapi deftly translated her memoir Persepolis into an animated feature that struck a careful balance between poignant coming-of-age realizations and the often-harsh political and social realities that are part and parcel of growing up amidst political and religious turmoil. This time around, once again joined by co-conspirator Vincent Paronnaud (with whom she shares writing and directing duties), Satrapi tackles what would seem to be nearly as personal a project, a tribute to her great-uncle, but Chicken With Plums doesn’t aim for the kind of cultural specificity and political import of Persepolis; instead, it feels as much a film about the possibilities of film, specifically live-action film, which she here tackles for the first time.

In fact, some aspects of Plums, the novel, seem to have been Westernized in order to appeal to a wider audience. In the film, Iranian musician Nasser-Ali Khan (played here by Frenchman Mathieu Amalric) despairs when he comes to the conclusion that there will never be a substitute for the violin given to him by his mentor. The violin here is a substitute for a tar, a variant of the lute, and Nasser-Ali’s musical influences specifically include the likes of Mozart. Upon this revelation, he decides that he can no longer go on living, which he doesn’t – as a narrator explains early in the film, Nasser-Ali dies eight days later. Plums devotes most of its time to detailing those eight days, with brief detours into the past and future of Nasser-Ali and his family.

Plums opens with an animated credits sequence remeniscent of Persepolis, then gradually enters a live-action sphere, always retaining heavily stylized, quirky visual elements that feel of a piece with vintage Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Unlike, say, Amélie, however, Plums make little to no attempt to depict Nasser-Ali as a saint or an unequivocally sympathetic figure, despite his prodigious talents. (He’s painted as being somewhat akin to a Fellini protag.) His longstanding love for a beautiful merchant’s daughter, Irane (Golshifteh Farahani), in turn renders him thoughtlessly cruel and cold towards his long-suffering wife, Fraringuisse (Maria de Medeiros), and indifferent towards his two children, whose futures are laid out in dreamlike flahforwards. (The son’s segment is the easy nadir of the film, a cartoonish, smug, and reductively ugly take on American excess.)

Depite that misstep, it’s the film’s lack of pretense about its characters that keeps it from descending into hokum. For all of the eye-rolling evocations of the all-consuming nature of the artistic process (surely one of the hoariest character traits known to man), Plums never pretends that Nasser-Ali’s transgressions are without repercussion or easily forgivable. As a result, the film works best as an exploration, rather than an impassioned defense, of romantic self-defeat. That sense is also aided by the surprisingly curt ending; while it renders the film slightly incomplete (particularly in its exploration of Faringuisse’s experiences), it also keeps Plums from caving into its own encroaching sentimentality.

Simon Howell

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