CHICKEN WITH PLUMS (Poulet aux prunes)
Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud
Screenwriter: Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud from the graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi
Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Jamel Debbouze, Edouard Baer, Eric Caravaca, Maria de Medeiros, Chiara Mastroianni
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 7/16/12
Opens: August 17, 2102
In a sequel to the wonderful and more political “Persepolis,” which was Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s animated film in which an Iranian girl travels abroad to escape from the oppression of the Iranian fundamentalist government (but cannot “find” herself in Vienna either), the writer-directors now treat us to an exquisitely photographed, edited and acted work with a modicum of animation. “Chicken with Plums,” which gets its title from the principal character’s favorite dish but one which fails to make him happy, is far more involved in telling a beautiful love story with an ending that (with a stretch) could remind viewers of “Romeo and Juliet.”
One of its chief themes embraces multiculturalism on different levels. As cinema, Satrapi and Parannaud resort to German expressionism particularly in its replaying of a section of Rupert Julian’s 1925 film “The Phantom of the Opera,” delightful animation as shown with a scene that could have come from “The Arabian Knights,” and a terrific soundtrack that uses music inspired by Russia and Iran. What’s more, the cast is composed of people who are French, Italian, Iranian and Moroccan, while the production, which takes place in Iran from 1930 to 1990, is in French and filmed in a Berlin studio. The story jumps seamlessly from depression to elation, from frustration to realization, from present to past and back again. All elements combine to make “Chicken with Plums” a work that’s a must-see for all sensitive souls seeking beauty without vulgarity.
Not that the characters are saints. As narrated by Azraël, the Angel of Death (Edouard Baer), the story focuses on Nasser Ali (Mathieu Amalric), a famous violinist but one with a temper—a man who despite his fame is miserable in a marriage to Faranguisse (Maria de Medeiros) whom he wed at the advice of his dying mother (Isabella Rosslini). Faranguisse despises her husband’s inability to support their two kids, neither of whom enjoys the love of their father.
Nasser Ali enters his marriage at the age of forty-one after having traveled the world, playing his violin at concerts, but after returning to Teheran he settles into a job he hates, teaching violin to children. A chance meeting in the distant past with Irâne (Golshifteh Farahani), the daughter of a successful clock merchant, led to a mutual love that was thwarted, one which had causes Nasser Ali so much pain that his ability with the violin was sufficiently enhanced to make him a concert violinist. (Here the writers appear to believe that great art must come from significant emotional pain.) Ultimately, as a much older man, Nasser Ali takes to his bed for eight days, wishing to die.
Some of the bold steps that the film takes include a satiric look at a 1950’s American family, dialogue in English of course, and also an animation involving a man in Jerusalem who, in attempting to escape from the clutches of the Angel of Death visits King Solomon, who whisks to the Taj Mahal in India as though opening a witness-protection program.
The film is exquisitely cast, the production anchored by Mathieu Amalric seen throughout with the bulging eyes of a French bulldog, as though amazed by everything he sees. Edouard Baer’s depiction of the Angel of Death is enhanced by his floating away like a ghost, a figure who is destined to return after a short sabbatical—one that is extended if someone prays for the life of a dying person. “Chicken with Plums” is as magical as any fairy tale, with all the characters’ disappointments and emotional brutality. Though Middle-East politics is virtually non-existent save for a brief animation of an American-organized coup in 1953 that puts the Western-minded Shah on the throne, we cannot fail to feel the writer-directors’ letdown that the once-modern country with a glorious past has been taken over by the devil.
Unrated. 91 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics OnlineStory – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – A
Overall – A-