Chicken With Plums is the second film by writer-director duo Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, after their brilliant, animated film Persepolis, a coming-of-age tale based on Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel. Chicken With Plums is also based on a graphic novel by Satrapi, but it is set earlier, in 1958, pre-revolution Tehran, and its forlorn protagonist is musician Nasser Ali (Mathieu Amalric). During an argument, his wife (Maria de Medeiros) has smashed his beloved violin, and though he searches, no other instrument will allow him to call forth the same sound. Thus, he does what any reasonable man would do in such a situation: he decides to kill himself.
Nasser Ali takes to his bed, resigned to stay there until the Angel of Death (Edouard Baer) comes for him. At first glance it seems a dubious plot, but as the film takes us through moments in Nasser Ali’s past — his childhood, his unhappy marriage, and his earlier interludes with a lost love (Golshifteh Farahani) — it becomes clear why Nasser Ali has lost his will to live.
Chicken With Plums is the story of a tragic life, and it doesn’t offer solutions to its sadness. (We learn early on that our hero will indeed die.) It simply revels in it.
And it does so beautifully. Nasser Ali’s life story is told with all of the dark comedic wit that was present in Persepolis. In fact, humor so permeates this film that in many scenes one nearly forgets that the whole thing is about one man’s unfulfilled, wasted life. Pieces of his story and of the stories of his wife and children are presented one by one, and in non-chronological order. In some fun flash-forwards, for example, we are shown the future lives of his two small, adorable children, which will turn out to be amusingly worthless. Each story is so engaging that its chronological order seems unimportant. Still, it’s a delight at the end when the entire timeline becomes clear and everything fits together perfectly, which is more than you can say for a lot of non-linear storytelling.
The real beauty of the film, though, is in its lovely use of stylized animation. Many of the backdrops are not so much shot as drawn. Moments of surreal imagery dot the film throughout, especially artful in a dancing plume of cigarette smoke and in a scene where Azreal, the Angel of Death, visits Nasser Ali in his bedroom. The mix of live-action and animation is so unique and itself makes the film worth seeing.
Final Verdict: Audiences that are addicted to the feel-good flick may not take to this film, largely because its rich emotions deviate so fully from the sunny artifice of Hollywood. Still, though Chicken With Plums tells a tragic story of loss and resignation, its brooding humor will charm fans of Persepolis and likely win new converts to Satrapi and Paronnaud’s unique style of storytelling.