Enjoying a feast
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, September 14, 2012
In 2007, Iranian-born graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi made a splash with “Persepolis,” her wildly inventive animated memoir of growing up and getting out of her troubled home country. “Chicken With Plums,” which finds Satrapi directing once again with Vincent Paronnaud, marks a departure for the team in some ways: They’re working with live actors, and expanding their cinematic language to encompass even more literary and artistic modes of expression.
But, at least allegorically, “Chicken With Plums” pulses with the same unrequited longing for an idealized Iran that gave “Persepolis” its mournful pull. French actor Mathieu Amalric plays Nasser-Ali Khan, an accomplished violinist in Tehran whose love for a woman named Iran (Golshifteh Farahani) sends him on an unlikely journey that is either deeply romantic or tragic, depending on your point of view.
Infused with the magical realism and fable-like simplicity of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, punctuated by Proustian memory and sharp shots of postmodern time and tonal shifts, “Chicken With Plums” is a whimsical, sad, diverting and altogether delightful exploration of how cinema can benefit, not only from glancing back at its own past, but by staying open to parallel forms of presentation and play.
With his wide-eyed stare, Amalric seems to be channeling his inner Charlie Chaplin as the besieged Nasser-Ali, who is trapped in a loveless marriage to a woman named Faringuisse (Maria de Madeiros) and a distant relationship with his two children. As a narrator explains how Nasser-Ali came to take to his bed for eight days, the story unfolds in scenes as stylized as the panels of a vivid graphic novel, its themes of unattainable ideals wafting through the proceedings as delicately as the clouds of smoke that serve as the film’s leitmotif, whether from cigarettes or the odd opium pipe. (The filmmakers make particularly inventive use of silhouette, which along with the piquant staging and theatrical lighting lend “Chicken With Plums” a suitably fairy-tale air.)
Indeed, when that appurtenance shows up in an early episode, it throws the entire narrative of “Chicken With Plums” into ripe ambiguity: Are we witnessing a memoir, or the ecstatic vision and fever dream of a man narcotically transported? It doesn’t matter, as Satrapi and Paronnaud carry viewers along on a sensuous, visually ingenious journey to the unconscious at its most fanciful and irrational.
Soaked in an ambered palette and swaying to Olivier Bernet’s lilting, lyrical score, “Chicken With Plums” lives up to its title: It’s a feast for the senses, and the imagination of anyone who knows the pain of desperately desiring that which can never be.
Contains some drug content, violent images, sensuality and smoking. In French with English subtitles.