This new film by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud differs from their first, in being (apart from a few sequences) a live-action effort rather than an animated one. But “Chicken With Plums” is, like “Persepolis,” a whimsical but bittersweet love letter to the lost Iran of Satrapi’s youth. And it’s told in a language of magic realism that befits its status as a fable rather than a conventional story—a visual style that has much in common with Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s in “Amelie” and “A Very Long Engagement.”
The central character is Nasser Ali (Mathieu Amalric), a violinist trapped in a loveless marriage, to bespectacled Faringuisse (Maria de Medeiros) that has nonetheless resulted in two small children. A tired, defeated man, he happens to pass a woman (Golshifteh Farahani) whom he obviously knows on the street, and when she fails to recognize him, he goes home to intent on dying. Choosing the least unpleasant and unsightly way of doing so, he simply takes to his bed to wait for the end to come.
What follows is a succession of vignettes set over the eight days of his vigil, during which scenes set in the present alternate with others from the past and glimpses of the future, when his children are grown. All are periodically punctuated by narration provided by Azrael (Edouard Baer), the Angel of Death, who ultimately confronts Nasser Ali directly. And the script takes goes full circle to show the encounter between the now-dying man and the mysterious woman—whom we now know to have been his one true love, lost to him because of her father’s objections—as it actually occurred, without the years swept aside by Ali’s pained memories.
That woman is named Iran, which makes it abundantly clear that she represents the country as it was in the fifties, recreated in dreamlike form; and the breakup signifies the pain felt by expatriates who may have rebuilt their lives but can never forget what they lost. But the film doesn’t make that point in a crude, heavy-handed fashion. Instead it proceeds with a combination of wit and poignancy, only occasionally falling into the trap of becoming too cute for comfort (as in a sequence, fashioned in the form of a bad sitcom, that supposedly shows the future life of Ali’s little son Cyrus as a goofy father in the United States).
Despite such lapses, however, for the most part the film maintains a dexterous balance between seriousness and slapstick. That’s shown, for example, in the domestic scenes between Ali and Faringuisse, which can be fierce without becoming soap-operatic, and those involving the kids, especially little Cyrus (Mathis Bour), a troublesome little tyke, which could have degenerated into very broad comedy but remain charmingly offbeat. A good deal of the credit goes to the filmmakers, but the cast deserves credit as well—especially Amalric, the steady anchor the story needs.
Major contributions to the shimmering look of “Chicken With Plums” are Udo Kramer’s striking production design and Madeline Fontaine’s costumes, which create a gauzy, impressionistic vision of a past seen through the mist of memory, and Christophe Beaucarne’s lush cinematography, which endows the images with a fairy-tale mood. Editor Stephane Roche manages to keep the time shifts clear without exaggerating them, and Olivier Bernet’s score adds to the atmosphere without overwhelming it (except in that Cyrus sitcom flash-forward, where the music is as overbearing as the concept).
Never having eaten it, I can’t say whether “Chicken With Plums” is a tasty dish. But the movie titled after it is mostly delicious.