Marjane Satrapi and her irrepressible zest for life
By Michael Cavna,
Everything Marjane Satrapi touches, no matter how dark, feels laced with an irrepressible joy. Her life, her work, even her ever-present cigarettes seem spiked with a strong strain of airborne humor. So as I wait in the bar last month at the Four Seasons hotel in Georgetown, I am determined not to open our conversation by immediately exhaling a blast of bleak existentialism. Even when discussing her new film about death.
Several minutes later, Satrapi walks up smiling, but not quite ebullient. How are you doing? I ask — we haven’t seen each other since April, at her George Washington University lecture appearance. “I was doing fine until a few hours ago,” the acclaimed Iranian filmmaker and graphic novelist says, sounding mournful. “I just heard David Rakoff died.”
Rakoff, the noted humorist and essayist, was a friend of Satrapi’s. He was 47. “He had so much more left to give, so much more to say as an artist,” says Satrapi, not too much younger herself. “But we won’t focus on that sadness now,” she says, forcing a smile and flipping her long, black hair from her face. On to the interview about her film about death.
Satrapi is very aware of the march of time and the limited period an artist has to create works that try to say something important or telling or true — that actually matter and will live on. In her latest film, the live-action “Chicken With Plums” (opening Friday in Washington), a world-class violinist — having lost his irreplaceable instrument in a domestic quarrel, no longer able to create his perfect, beautiful music — decides to die. Life, without the purpose and joy of his art, is no longer worth living.
The character (played soulfully by Mathieu Amalric) is inspired by Satrapi’s uncle — who was a noted tar player in Iran and is depicted in the film’s source work, her graphic novel of the same name. Being descended from an artist uncle — and from a cinephile father — seems only to have heightened Satrapi’s awareness of a finite time for personal creation. With that in mind, will she next pursue her graphic novels, or animation, or music — or another live-action film?
“I don’t make a career plan. I take things the way they come,” Satrapi tells me earlier, noting she’s in her early 40s. “I’m a big smoker. So let’s say I live another 30 years, on the optimistic end. A project takes two or three years of my life — 10 percent of my life. I can only choose so many projects and then my life is finished. I have to be extremely careful what I do. When time goes, it goes.”
Asked whether she would ever give up smoking on the chance that it might extend her artist’s life, the Paris-based creator laughs at the very absurdity. (She is staying at the Four Seasons precisely because it has smoking rooms.) “You have to live,” she says. “I just spoke to students in Madison [Wisconsin], and some of them, in their 20s, were older than I am. I said, ‘You should be out drinking vodka and living while you can still bounce back the next morning and be just fine.’ ”
Satrapi notes, too, that her grandmother smoked and lived to age 92, which underscores an idea so redolent in her films: “Smoke isn’t just death,” she says. “To me, smoke is like life.”
Satrapi is a huge fan of “Casablanca” and “Chinatown,” and to her, smoke is also character. In “Chicken With Plums,” after one chain-smoking character dies, a revolving cloud of tobacco ether hovers over a grave like a beautiful life force, more alive than dead.
“Chicken With Plums” itself has a sweet, melancholy yet romantic life force — and a creative reincarnation. The original graphic novel was honored at Angouleme, the same esteemed international comics festival where Satrapi first exploded onto the world stage in 2001 with “Persepolis”; her comic tale of being a child of the Iranian revolution won the event’s Coup de Coeur Award.
Satrapi and her creative partner, French director Vincent Paronnaud, gorgeously adapted “Persepolis” into an animated film that won the 2007 Special Jury Prize at Cannes and received an Oscar nomination the next year — helping to anoint Satrapi as a star within comics and animation.
In re-teaming for “Chicken With Plums,” Satrapi and Paronnaud show a shared creative virtuosity — but that doesn’t mean their visions are always shared. “Sometimes I can’t believe what he is seeing,” Satrapi says passionately, smiling widely as she adjusts her bright, white-and-turquoise shift dress. “In that moment, I wish for him not to be alive in the morning. But the next day, I can’t wait to work with him. Like with your brother or sister, you forgive and love them and go on.”
Paronnaud, having extinguished his cigarette, laughs at this description when it’s recounted a half-hour later. Through his thick salt-and-pepper beard, the lean director-cartoonist smiles knowingly and says: “That’s the way it is” with art.
By the end of our interview, Satrapi’s zest for life again burns irrepressible. Her Diet Coke is barely touched, and she needs a smoke.
As we part, still wafting in my head like a cartoon smoke-cloud are words she told me earlier: “I’m extremely careful about what I really want to do, and I have to be happy doing it, so I haven’t just wasted my time and my life.”
Cavna writes The Post blog ”Comic Riffs.”
“Chicken With Plums” (91 minutes; rated PG-13) opens Friday at Landmark Bethesda Row and Shirlington 7.