Review: Chicken with Plums


[This review was originally posted as part of our 2012 Tribeca Film Festival coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the wider theatrical release of the film.]

Chicken with Plums reteams Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, the duo behind 2007’s animated adaptation of Persepolis. The new film is also based on one of Satrapi’s graphic novels, though the vast majority of the movie is live-action. Maybe live-action cartoon is the best description.  I haven’t read Chicken with Plums, but there was at least one major change in this adaptation: Nasser-Ali Khan plays the violin in the film rather than the tar. (A tar is a Persian lute.)

Perhaps the violin gives the movie an international feel. It’s an instrument more people are familiar with, and its sound has a certain versatility — you can do light and happy on a violin as well as heavy and sad. The violin may be just the right instrument for the movie because Chicken with Plums hops back and forth between highs and lows with a lot of beauty and a nimble kind of whimsy. It’s sort of like a chronically depressed Jeunet/Caro film — Amélie on suicide watch.

Chicken with Plums (Poulet aux prunes)
Director: Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi
Rating: PG-13
Country: France/Belgium/Germany
Release Date: August 17, 2012 (limited) 

Nasser-Ali (Mathieu Amalric) is the world’s greatest violinist. One day he realizes that he’ll never be able to replace a broken violin and so he decides to commit suicide. It’s in that absurd set-up, which comes near the beginning of the film, that Chicken with Plums won my whole attention. Absurdity like that is almost always a jumping-off point for some greater, deeper meaning. It runs at a cliff edge and either gets wings or hits the rocks below. In this case, it’s a bit of both: our artist flies up and then makes a decision to take a graceful, full-speed nosedive.

Early on we’re told that Nasser-Ali dies after eight days, so we know his fate almost immediately. The rest of the film hops back and forth in time to show us why he made the decision. As you might have guessed already, the broken violin is just the latest in a long line of disappointments. It’s important, but like any object, it’s important only because of the personal history that’s been invested in it. And somehow among all the sour moods and the sadness of a compromised life, this portrait of a tragic artist is also funny.

By giving the film a whimsical, fantastical tone, Paronnaud and Satrapi are able to balance between such extreme emotional highs and lows. I’m not a fan of the term “magical realism” since it’s usually applied too broadly, but that sort of stunning, haunting fabulism is everywhere in Chicken with Plums. In one scene as Nasser-Ali lays dying, a bit of cloud comes loose in the sky and slowly drifts down like cotton candy into the waiting mouth of his daughter. There’s a great image of a manifested soul set loose. It’s such a flight of visual fancy, and its pulled off so well. To me, that’s how memory works.

Nasser-Ali’s emotional life is one built on intense joys and intensified suffering from the lack of intense joys. If we try to think of those moments in our own lives, a process of emphasis and transformation occurs. Our first loves become a bit more potent, our big heartbreaks seem apocalyptic, our deferred dreams seem more unfortunate. Since memory and emotion is the raw material for Nasser-Ali’s art, it figures that memories would be enhanced and transformed into these rich tableaux. The film seems to ask how can someone make intensely emotional music if their own emotional life isn’t one of equal intensity. The whole film is about the emotional lives of these characters, and it’s all odd but so real as well.

Where Chicken with Plums really succeeds is in joining all these major emotional overtures and bits of emphatic artifice with complicated human beings and their relationships. Nasser-Ali is a selfish man and a horrible father and husband, and yet there’s something compelling about him. His wife Faringuisse (Maria de Medeiros) is at once an unlikable shrew and a sympathetic victim of lifelong unrequited love. It’s like everyone has these highs and lows in them, including Nasser-Ali’s children. Well, maybe not his tubby son whose life will be absolutely bizarre, but certainly his daughter who winds up so tragically European.

As it turns out, there was a real Nasser-Ali and he was a relative of Satrapi’s. I’m not sure how much of the biography on film is factual (the violin thing isn’t, that’s for sure), but it’s probably a reflection of reality in some way. Yet with a film like Chicken with Plums or any fictionalized retelling of a life, the facts are often subservient to the truth. I’ve probably written about that a few times already, but there’s such a profound distinction between what is factual and what is true. Facts are the chain of events that occur while the truth is all about the internal response to the mere facts. It’s the way that fiction can feel true or characters can seem real; it’s the difference of being correct and being honest. Or to put it musically, it’s the difference between technical proficiency and real feeling.

Truth has far more ability to move us than the facts, and while Chicken with Plums is no accurate portrait of 1950s Tehran, it’s an honest portrait of some people who lived there and then died. It’s the Tehran of memory, and memories are odd things. It’s also an honest (and hyperbolic) portrait of what Satrapi and Paronnaud feel about suffering artists and the act of creation. Artists can take themselves so seriously when they feel something so deeply. Art is honestly worth dying for even though very few people would actually die for it. It’s all so funny and so sad at the same time.

At the end of the film, a lot of people stayed through the credits to give themselves a moment to dry their eyes and decompress. Sometimes it’s a little embarrassing to walk out of a theater when it’s obvious you’ve been crying, but maybe it shouldn’t be. It’s just an honest reaction to something that moved you, and being moved is nothing to be ashamed about.

Part of me wonders what would happen if they stuck with the tar rather than picking the violin. After the film I listened to some tar music. It’s got a unique sound that’s distinctly Persian. The little plucks ring out like you’re hearing it from the end of an alleyway. Though it’s the size of a banjo, a tar’s body shape is similar to a violin, and both have the Junoesque curves of a woman’s body. But maybe the violin makes more sense given its sound. With a tar, you’d lose those long, seemingly endless notes. They’re like memories of lost happiness that persist up until the moment of death; or, since Chicken with Plums is all about highs and low, it’s like the same memories of happiness right before they’re gone, lingering through an entire life like some sunset unextinguished, some eternal perfect day.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.