Chicken With Plums

MELANCHOLIA: Mathieu Amalric plays a musician who has lost the will to go on in 'Chicken With Plums.'

Tehran, 1958: The melancholy violinist Nasser Ali Khan decides to commit suicide, though he can't figure a painless and clean way to make his exit. Thus Nasser Ali (Mathieu Almaric, here looking like Matthew Broderick gone bug-eyed from a powerful electric shock), haunts the murk of his room smoking cigarettes.

His owlish wife, Faringuisse (Maria de Medeiros), must work and take care of their two children while he lies waiting for the end. She tries to lure her husband out of his despair with food, using the dish of the title, Chicken With Plums.

Neither Persian food porn nor a beguiling magical realist tale, Chicken With Plums is instead an unsteady follow-up to Persepolis by director/writer Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud. The film is done in the mixed animation and live action style of Frank Miller and Zack Snyder, which includes passages of complete surrealism: a reverie of Sophia Loren is represented by a pair of room-size breasts, like the noses of a pair of zeppelins. Nasser Ali crawls between them, hangs onto them and dreams.

Stagey pink sunsets and cherry blossoms indicate perfect love, and a bus ride to a hilltop city coyly resembles the trolley ride at the beginning of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood. Miniatures that are meant to look like miniatures are something pleasing in films. Too often, as here, they're childishly made miniatures calling attention to their cuteness.

The hearts and flowers subject makes Chicken With Plums something on the order of an item found at a curiosity shop, just like the one where Nasser Ali, early in the film, purchases a violin once owned by Mozart himself.

The subject matter also seems antique: the angst of violinists was a remarkably popular story in 1930s films. As in those old films, the themes here include impotent love, arranged marriage and the corrosion of the soul caused by tradition. Nasser Ali turns out to have a lost love, played by the dismayingly pretty Golshifteh Farahani. She's a love object named, perhaps significantly, "Irene." When Nasser Ali plays his violin, the narrator tells us, "Iran was present in every chord."

As we see, Nasser Ali is instead married to a woman that doesn't like him much and doesn't even care for his music. And he has a daughter who inherits the family melancholy. She is played by Chiara Mastroianni, who did the voice of Marjane in the film of Persepolis. As a grown-up, she sports a peek-a-boo white Cruella de Vil shock in her hair, and she mutters bleak thoughts around a cigarette holder: "Life. If you only knew what I thought of life."

His son, a stinky little boy, turns into something worse than melancholy—he emigrates and becomes (horrors) an American. This story within a story is staged as payback for every time American films have given us skulking robed terrorists or garlicky Frenchies. These obese, violent and stupid Yankees in their garishly lit house are played by people with audible British accents. The sequence is made for people who believe two wrongs make a right.

When the raven-winged Angel of Death, Azrael (Edouard Baer), finally turns up, there is at last something big enough and fanciful enough for the quasi-animated conceit. Among other things, the insinuating angel spins the tale of the "Appointment in Samarra," a sequence animated in Satrapi's style of drawing. It's a familiar trope; YouTube has a snippet of Boris Karloff telling the story in Peter Bogdanovich's 1968 Targets (a film that haunted the memory after the Aurora massacre). While it's always compelling, is this exactly the right legend in a film about someone deliberately seeking out death?

Made in France, Chicken With Plums has a sense of a dim Eastern light reflected one too many times. And how it succeeds as an allegory is another question. If it's a tale of exile, of art being stamped out by harsh tradition (of the fate of modern-day Iran), it's a fantasy that leads to the ultimate self-sacrifice. It seems to have the Borges-esque motto "Resistance Is Futile."

It's possible to make a story of a hero knocked out by despair (Melancholy was a success at it). Here, the realistic figure in the cartoon landscape doesn't give the landscape depth, and the cartoon landscape doesn't give the realistic figure whimsy.

Chicken with Plums

93 MIN


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