Anybody seeking a well-rounded love story featuring emotionally secure individuals should stay far, far away from Chicken with Plums (Poulet aux prunes). Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s adaptation of Satrapi’s graphic novel focuses on Nasser-Ali (Mathieu Amalric), a violinist living in late 1950s Iran. He plays like an angel, but suffers from an overwhelming moodiness. In the film’s first few scenes, he buys a violin and returns it almost immediately, screaming at the shop owner that he’s been cheated. In fact, life has cheated him.
A few scenes later, at yet another shop, Nasser-Ali escapes his miseries via opium; the episode convinces him that he wants to escape more permanently, and so he decides to die. After contemplating a series of suicidal options, he concludes they’re all too painful or unnerving. And so he determines to lay down in his bed until he stops living. It’s a grand gesture that coincides nicely with the film’s wildly emotive opera.
Flashbacks show that Nasser-Ali has been wounded in love, though he looks at first to be little more than an overindulged artist. He appears miserable in a fractious marriage to the emotionally volatile Faringuisse (Maria de Medeiros), apparently a result of his inability to say no to his overbearing mother (Isabella Rossellini). He’s lost all will to play violin following the recent destruction of his instrument, and he’s unable to find a suitable replacement. Still, he has second thoughts about dying when the Angel of Death (Edourd Baer) actually shows up, a hooded imp with an aptly wicked sense of humor.
This visit comes late in the film; prior, the flashbacks in Chicken with Plums are parceled out over the eight days Nasser-Ali spends confined to bed, waiting for his end to come. As he frets, the nonlinear narrative circles around his pining for a lost love (Golshifteh Farahani as the significantly named Irâne) and his lost joy in music. This lack of momentum keeps the graphic novel from being as artistically or emotionally fulfilling as Satrapi’s Persepolis, even as both works share a yearning for a more culturally open Iran.
Still, the riot of styles and moods helps to propel the film of Chicken with Plums. Primarily live-action, with occasional animated segments (unlike the film of Persepolis, which was fully animated), the scenes pulsate with such glow and jumping verve that they almost feel like animation. Its mix of Persian and French influences is oversaturated with poignant music, gorgeous scenery, and highly stylized performances. Not all these pieces fit together: a sequence showing the future of Nasser-Ali and Faringuisse’s son (Christian Friedel) when he moves to the US is rife with trash-television pathologies (teen pregnancy, trash-mouthed kids) and shot too obviously ironically, as if it’s a three-camera sitcom. (It’s a too familiar satire, one famous instance being Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers almost 20 years ago).
Chicken with Plums’ artificiality is thematic, of course, and highlighted by shots that seem to burst out from one frame into another with all the colliding energy of a graphic novel. At the same time, and unlike some other graphic novel adaptations, this movie makes good use of its actors. Amalric’s mad intensity is tailor-made for this story (it helps that plays the violin in real life), but the filmmakers modulate it too, setting Nasser-Ali in relation to his understandably resentful wife and his more grounded brother (Eric Caravaca). De Medeiros is almost as impressive, particularly in one critical scene where she looks at herself in a mirror: the delicate calibrations she makes in those few seconds of wan self-reflection are breathtaking.
Amid such powerful moments, as well as drifting flower petals and a lavish chiaroscuro design, Chicken with Plums also offers some black comedy. The mood is world-weary and exhausted from passion, the sort best appreciated after a miserable breakup, enhanced by a few packs of Gitanes. Although a man’s life is in the balance, the movie doesn’t take his emotional gyrations too seriously. In what other film can you say that the appearance of the Angel of Death helps lighten the mood?