Marjane Satrapi has a way with difficult characters and difficult circumstances.
Her first book, the acclaimed 2000 graphic novel “Persepolis” — which she and co-director Vincent Paronnaud made into an animated film in 2007 — chronicled her own tumultuous childhood and adolescence during the Islamic revolution in Iran. Her new, live-action film, “Chicken With Plums,” also co-directed with Paronnaud, is based on her 2004 book of the same name. In it, we meet Nasser Ali Khan (Mathieu Amalric), a distant uncle of Satrapi’s and a gifted violinist living in late-’50s Tehran. He’s mad at the world, hates his wife and gives opium-laced milk to his son to shut him up. And yet, he’s the film’s hero.
“I think being a nasty jerk should not be only the privilege of bad people,” Satrapi says. “Human beings are complex. None of us are heroes and none of us are totally bad. This guy’s just broken by life.”
After Nasser’s beloved instrument is destroyed, he falls into a depression. He ruminates on his decision to marry at the behest of his overbearing mother (Isabella Rossellini) and pines for a lost love.
Nasser takes to his bed and decides to die. He considers a ridiculously grim series of suicide methods to slapstick effect, something Satrapi drew from her own life.
“I wanted to commit suicide many times, and every time I tried, I missed,” she says. “Like the time I went to put the hair dryer in my bath, but the cord was too short. After you survive all that, it becomes very comic.”
As Nasser declines, the set shrinks to the size of his dark bedroom and yet simultaneously expands into the magical realism of his dreams of his days with his first love, Irane (Golshifteh Farahani).
In these scenes, the film is full of color and whimsy, courtesy of hand-constructed paper cityscapes and CGI that give the film the feel of a pop-up book. Satrapi says this look was influenced by the work of American directors including Alfred Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk.
“It’s a celebration of the cinema of the ’50s, when they were not scared to draw these incredible skies that everybody knew didn’t really exist,” Satrapi says. “Reality has never interested me a lot. I like the truth, but reality sucks.”
“Chicken With Plums” is Part 2 of a trilogy of films that Satrapi planned to make tracing several generations of her family. A third story, “The Eleventh Laureate,” chronicles the life of her grandmother. Satrapi, however, says this last installment won’t first be a graphic novel; it will go straight to the screen. “The language of cinema and the language of books is not at all the same language,” she says. “Intellectually, translating it is extremely annoying.” s.m.Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema, 7235 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda; opens Fri., $11; 301-652-7273. (Bethesda)