Chicken with Plums: Venice Film Review

Chicken with Plums - 2011- H
Live-action follow-up to "Persepolis" set in 1950s Iran blends humor and poetry with delightful artistry.

Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud co-direct a a colorful fantasy set in 1958 Iran.

Both winsome and sophisticated, Chicken with Plums unfolds like a rich Persian carpet woven of memories and nostalgia in a colorful fantasy Iran of 1958, twenty years before the Islamic Revolution turned the country to somber grays. Though co-directors Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud opt to turn Satrapi’s graphic novel into a live action film, fans of their animated debut Persepolis will find plenty of animation and CGI interludes to spice up the story, which is anyway shot in a magical style of non-realism. Potentially the film has somewhat wider appeal than its predecessor, being based not on far-away political history but on easily recognizable characters who seem more French than Iranian. Festival prizes and critical support should help signal its specialness.

Humor and imagination lead the viewer through the winding story, which flashes forward and backward amid dream sequences and fantasies. The life of Nasser Ali Khan (Mathieu Amalric), a world-famous violinist so unhappy he decides to die, is narrated by Azrael, the Angel of Death (Edward Baer), a great black caped figure with very white teeth, who makes his actual appearance appropriately late in the tale.

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The entire film is a search backwards in time for the reason for Nasser Ali’s drastic decision. He blames his wife (Maria De Medeiros) for breaking his prized violin during a quarrel. To find a replacement, he travels with his pestiferous young son up a mountain to reach an antique dealer, who gives them both opium and claims to have Mozart’s own Stradivarius for sale.  Not even this magnificent instrument is enough to satisfy what ails Nasser Ali, however, and he takes to his bed, waiting for death to carry him off.

In the eight days it takes for the Angel to come for him, the violinist relives his life, from his unsuccessful school career, bested by his nose-to-the-grindstone brother, to a loveless marriage to the math teacher Faranguiss (recounted by Maria de Medeiros in a 360° performance) to satisfy his bossy, chain-smoking mother (Isabella Rossellini in a warm cameo.)  He’s not such a hot father, either, and the disastrous future of his two small kids is recounted in comic flash-forwards. Chiara Mastroianni is a hoot as the grown-up daughter, who has dedicated herself to smoking, drinking and gambling. His son’s fate in Wyoming is arguably even worse.

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In reality, the crux of the film is supposed to be Nasser Ali’s ill-starred love story with the beautiful Iran (Golshifteh Farahani) when he was a violin student in Shiraz. It detonates too late and too improbably to be very emotionally effective or heart-rending. Still, the metaphor of a girl named Iran who prematurely ages into a sad, gray-haired granny will not be lost on alert viewers. Radiating the joyful, dewy freshness of a latter-day Louise Brooks, Farahani is up to the mythic role Iran is called on to play.

With his huge eyes and moustache, always feverishly fighting for his privileges, Amalric humorously spoofs the egocentric artist who is forced to learn his master’s lesson: great music is not about technique, but about deep feeling. As obvious as it sounds, it’s a lot to believe about a character this comical.

The creativity of the artwork is fully matched by cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne’s amusing lighting and Udo Kramer’s magical sets (filmed in Studio Babelsberg), which view period Iran through the lens of poetry and the imagination.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 3, 2011.
Production companies: Celluloid Dreams in association with The Manipulators, uFilm, Studio 37, Le Pacte, Lorette Productions, Film(s), Arte France Cinema, ZDF-Arte
Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Edouard Baer, Maria De Medeiros, Golshifteh Farahani, Eric Caravaca, Chiara Mastroianni, Isabella Rossellini, Jamel Debbouze
Directors: Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud
Screenwriters: Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud based on Satrapi’s book
Executive producer: Francois-Xavier Decraene
Producer: Hengameh Panahi
Co-producers: Torsten Poeck, Charly Woebcken, Christoph Fisser, Gilles Waterkeyn, Adrian Politowski, Frederique Dumas
Director of photography: Christophe Beaucarne
Production designer: Udo Kramer
Music: Olivier Bernet
Costumes: Madeleine Fontaine
Editor: Stephane Roche
Sales Agents: Celluloid Dreams, Studio 37
95 minutes.