‘Chicken With Plums’ Review
'Chicken With Plums' is a film that's so clever, whimsical and creative in execution it'll take you a minute to realize it's about a husband and father of two who slowly commits suicide.
That's not really a spoiler. Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's French-language adaptation of Satrapi's graphic novel 'Chicken With Plums' lays out our main character's fate right after an extended prologue, then counts down his remaining eight days of solitude once he loses the will to live. During these eight days we'll get flashbacks, flash-forwards and commentary direct from an unlikely narrator that reveal just why Nasser-Ali Khan (Mathieu Amalric) has given up hope.
Nasser-Ali only had a few moments of true happiness. His childhood in a highly stylized early 20th century Tehran can be summarized with one memory: the headmaster praising his brother and leading a round of boos as the entire school tssks him in German Expressionist shame.
As a young man he begins music training, and becomes a technical whiz at the violin. His teacher tells him he lacks the emotional drive to become "un vrai artiste." It comes however, when he falls in love, but his would-be bride's father ends the relationship. While his heart is shattered, he now has the missing piece to become a true master; he may not be happy, but with his violin he can at least live his life with agency.
He tours the world, but his mother (Isabella Rossellini) demands he marries. He settles with Maria de Medeiros (you remember her from the "Zed's Dead" part of 'Pulp Fiction') but it is a one-way relationship. Even the biggest groupies will one day snap, and in so doing he smashes Nasser-Ali's violin.
As its pieces break so does his connection to his lost love as well as his will to live and, which brings us up to the eight days of isolation. In Nasser-Ali's room he'll go over these events in his mind with a Philip Roth-like repetition, and as his body deteriorates so will the film's grasp on realism.
'Chicken with Plums' makes remarkable use of mixed-media. (Recall that Satrapi and Paronnaud's previous film, 'Persepolis,' was hand-drawn black and white cartoon.) There are animated sequences, matte paintings up the wazoo, a hilarious fake American sitcom tangent and clever uses of stage lighting tricks to bend the reality of interiors. More than this, however, is a curious blend of tones.
The movie is sweet - there are moppety kids, fun stories about magic carpets, a visit from Socrates - but it is overwhelmingly sad. A broken heart will never mend, love can never be learned and even the joys of children (well, one of them, anyway - the girl is nice, the boy is a stooge) can't save someone who chooses to die. The snow on the swing-set piles up, the cigarettes in the package empty out, and the clock wound-up at the beginning of the film eventually gives out.
2012 is one heck of a year for crafty, melancholy films. 'Moonrise Kingdom' is still warm in my memory, as is the wonderful 'Paranorman.' 'Chicken with Plums,' the most adult of the three, to be sure, fits in nicely with this trend.
I've read that Harvey Weinstein is prepping a full-court Awards campaign for the dull, conventional, odd couple dramedy 'The Intouchables.' Quel dommage. 'Chicken With Plums is my favorite foreign language film I've yet seen in 2012, and by all rights should be France's pick to represent the Gallic nation at the Oscars. Then again, for a film about unfulfilled promise and a lifetime of regret, maybe 'Chicken with Plums' is a film that deserves to be recognized only by a select few.
'Chicken With Plums' is currently playing in select theaters.
Jordan Hoffman was the movies editor at Hearst Digital’s UGO for four years and currently contributes to SlashFilm, MTV’s NextMovie and StarTrek.com. He’s made two marginally successful independent movies, is a member of the New York Film Critics Online and was named IFC’s Ultimate Film Fanatic of the NorthEast in 2004. Follow him on Twitter at @JHoffman6.