Of so many things to be hung up on about Marjane Satrapi’s sophomore feature, alongside cinematic collaborator Vincent Paronnaud, the most immediate ordeal is its delicacy referencing title, Chicken with Plums. A strange grievance to have for a film, but even the simplest of titles hold some prevailing significance to the film it is associated with. The titular dish is only ever mentioned once in a scene that’s not of particular importance to the film’s narrative, and then ignored for the rest of the film. That gesture of throwing something so crucial and definitive onto something so fleeting is, ironically, exactly what defines Satrapi’s film
Chicken with Plums is much more an expression of aesthetic importance, so perhaps I am missing something crucial by having never had the dish. The film shows master violinist Nasser Ali, played with a wide-eyed sense of accumulation by Matthieu Amalric, ending his search for an instrument to match his skills in agony. His coveted instrument has long been destroyed, and now unable to continue creating music, Nasser Ali decides to end his own life. The hollowness and immediacy of that decision, along with the quick acknowledgment that he success, threatens to send the film into a depressing and monotonous rave.
However Nasser Ali’s problems turn out to be much less diagnosable than simple “get over yourself” proclamations, of which his loved ones give him numerous samplings. Though the remainder of the film takes a segment-by-segment approach that focuses on a different character in each chapter, there is a continuous emotional progression for Nasser Ali that makes his death throes less despicable. The decision to die is not without heartache for missed opportunities, meticulous considerations for one’s legacy, or the more prevailing fear of judgment, rather than death.
Also aiding proceedings is that aforementioned sense of intentionally evasive dandy. To say that Chicken with Plums is any less of a cartoon than Satrapi’s previous feature, Persepolis, would be a grave misnomer. Her work on this film is even more commited in its carnivalesque style, perhaps because she’s no longer hindered by the imposition of personal experience. Adapted from her own novel based on her great uncle, it’s no great leap to say she takes creative liberties in her telling. But who knows? Maybe she truly believes that her uncle learned his skills from a monk on a mountaintop.
There are times when these characters, supposedly based upon Satrapi’s elder relatives, are shown in a light far less than flattering. Nasser Ali’s selfish ambition makes him a rather difficult protagonist to get behind, but there’s something amusing about how all his misguided endeavors lead to current and future misfortunes. It avoids the trap of throwing tragedies relentlessly at him so as to punish him, becoming more of an ironic justice to his story. After all, in spite of the embarrassing future of his son and the melancholic fate of his daughter, the segments showing Nasser Ali’s children following his death are a thing of masochistic humor.
The film’s flourishes are not entirely without purpose either, as could easily be the case when the angel of death shows up with a nonchalant attitude. There’s a silliness that overlays what were likely genuine, but far less sprightly, moments of realization without them. The teachers and guidance to Nasser Ali are shown with an extremely cartoonish representation of knowledge and wisdom. It makes a case for an animated telling of the film, which may have translated as more honest. In spite of the dutifully risen-to-face-level performances, there’s something that doesn’t quite reach through emotionally about the film.
Though Chicken with Plums‘ stylistic inclinations may be somewhat at fault, the attentive and sexualized work of crew is worth commending. Christophe Beaucarne’s cinematography, while hilariously simplistic in much of its framing, makes extraordinary use of light on its subjects. As death peers ever closer, those bright whites become ever more defined. Also a prominent factor in the beauty of the images are the Damien Stumpf headed visual effects, often quite simple and ridiculous, but always playing to the tonal intentions of the moment, even if the tone Satrapi chooses is a problematic one.
The humor in the film is often thrown in for the intentional sake of an easy laugh, but there’s much more amusement that rises out of these moments than there are audible chuckles. That pervading feeling of dalliance serves to oppress the film, asking repeatedly for profound purpose as being met with farts. It’s that irony that works in favor of the film as much as it does hinder it. There comes a point when Satrapi does realize the ticking clock on the piece, and things move forward with the kind of affection and passion we wished were in the prior 70 minutes of the feature.
If there’s a message that Satrapi comes to, it’s that a life lived in embarrassment is still a life lived. The film shares a stylistic code with that of Tarsem Singh’s The Fall, but a narrative thread most akin to Sam Mendes’ American Beauty. An odd mix, and Satrapi’s expressionistic direction doesn’t come close to matching up. Less refined and intentionally provocative than Tarsem, and with relationships not nearly as well defined as those in Mendes’ film, that does not take away from the occasional delight the film raises and actively indulges itself with. It does however highlight Satrapi as a director who, much like the characters in her films, needs something worth fighting for.
Bottom Line: Chicken with Plums serves as delightfully affectionate to those who are open to it. Those who aren’t will find an amusing, though fundamentally undecided, trifle.