Chicken With Plums
Strung Along: Chicken With Plums conjures painful sweetness in the life and death of an Iranian violinist.
Thursday, October 4, 2012
For more than an hour, Chicken With Plums looks like it’s going to be a case study in terminal levels of preciousness. Then, improbably, directors Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud bring it back from the dead.
Set in 1950s Tehran, it tells the story of a celebrated violinist named Nasser Ali Khan (French actor/director Mathieu Amalric, best known as the villain of the last Bond flick, Quantum of Solace) who has suffered the greatest loss imaginable to him. No, his wife (Maria de Medeiros) and children are just fine. It’s Nasser Ali’s beloved violin that has been ruined – and, incapable of finding a replacement that he finds acceptable, he decides to lie down in his bed and wait to die.
The rest of the film covers the eight days we are told it takes for Nasser Ali finally to perish, as narrated by Azrael, the Angel of Death (Edouard Baer). And it becomes a wild and conspicuously quirky trip through time, with not just Nasser Ali’s own life passing before our eyes – his relationship with his brother, the early days of his musical education, the death of his mother (Isabella Rossellini) – but also the lives of his daughter and son that he will miss as they grow up. Veering between dark comedy, Amélie-style whimsy and even a little animation – fittingly enough for the filmmakers behind the Oscar-nominated Persepolis – Chicken With Plums often feels so committed to pumping life into the tale of a suicidal man that it over-inflates to the point of bursting.
But then we get to a critical bit of back-story: Nasser Ali’s youthful love for Irane (Golshifteh Farahani), and how it comes to define the rest of his life. And it’s something of a small miracle as a stand-alone short film, building joy and heartbreak into both their tentative courtship and a 20-year montage that conveys exactly why Nasser Ali’s music becomes the focus of his existence. Everything that felt strained and artificial suddenly vanishes in a wonderfully poignant and human story.
That finale is so lovely, efficient and honest that it actually makes the rest of it even more frustrating in retrospect. While there’s the sense that many of the vignettes are supposed to resonate more strongly in light of the late revelations about Nasser Ali, it’s hard to see some of them – including the literal appearance of the Angel of Death as a guy grinning through blackface – as anything but trying too hard. There’s 20 minutes of heartbreaking stuff at the core of Chicken With Plums. And it’s a shame that it takes 70 minutes of over-the-top wackiness before we’re allowed to get there.
CHICKEN WITH PLUMS (3) Directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud • Starring Mathieu Amalric, Isabella Rossellini, Maria de Medeiros, Golshifteh Farahani, Edouard Baer • Rated PG-13 • 93 min. • At Osio Cinemas.