Fiddle While Home Burns
Chicken With Plums (2011)
Marjane Satrapi has carved herself a very particular niche, firstly as a cartoonist with an extremely distinctive black-and-white drawing style shown off her in her graphic novels, which are based on her life growing up in Iran. Now living in France, Ms. Satrapi has further branched out into making films based on her graphic novels; the first was 2007’s “Persepolis,” an animated, autobiographical film drawn in her style co-written and co-directed with Vincent Paronnaud. And now they have reteamed for the live-action — though stylized — “Chicken With Plums.”
Nasser Ali (Mathieu Amalric), a temperamental and world-famous violin player in 1950s Tehran, takes to his bed after his beloved violin is destroyed. In a fit of colossal pique he decides that since it is broken, his life is now pointless and therefore he is going to die. Early on, we are shown his funeral, so there’s no mystery about whether or not he succeeds. But the movie moves backward and forwards through time to show the impact of his life and death on his family — including his unloved wife, Faringuisse (Maria de Medeiros); interfering mother, Parvine (Isabella Rossellini); unhappy daughter, Lili (Chiara Mastroianni as an adult) and revolutionary brother, Abdi (Eric Caravaca). Everyone tries to keep Nasser Ali in this life, but we slowly learn the real reason why Nasser Ali has given up.
This is an interesting voyage to live in a time and a place: Iran before the fall of the Shah — little discussed in the West. It was shot on soundstages, the better to reflect its graphic-novel source material. Several shots are staged as comic strips, but this subtlety often works extremely well — such as in the shot of a smiling couple in a convertible with the woman’s trailing scarf as a summation of an entire marriage. At other times — as in the sequence in the junk shop in the beginning — it’s overly stagy and distracting.
Perhaps Ms. Satrapi was too close to the original material, as the pace and the timing are messy and unfocused. A tighter structure and keeping Nasser Ali’s death a mystery would have prevented the stakes from being so regrettably low. And Ms. Satrapi and Mr. Paronnaud should have cut the peculiar sequence where Nasser Ali literally grapples with the angel of death (Edouard Baer). Despite this, Mr. Amalric — one of our most versatile and subtle actors — manages to convey both the sulky monstrousness and overwhelming heartbreak of an unsympathetic man. Ms. de Medeiros, who you remember as Bruce Willis’s girlfriend from “Pulp Fiction,” also makes the most of a character whose unhappiness is both pitiful and understandable.
But the most striking sequence is a flash-forward of Nasser Ali’s son Cyrus (Mathis Bour as an obnoxiously cheerful little boy who steals the film; Christian Friedel as an adult), who flees the Iranian revolution by studying in Wyoming and marrying an American. The sequence depicting his grotesque American family provides significant food for thought, not least in its contrast to the elegant and refined world of Nasser Ali. Anyone who is curious about how Americans are seen by the French and the Iranians owes it to themselves to see this movie.