Sony // 2011 // 91 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // February 14th, 2013
"I'm done for. I'll never play again."
The movie debut of Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud was very kind. The animated Persepolis was up for an animation Oscar and won Cannes' jury prize. Their second feature, Chicken with Plums (Poulet aux Prunes), is live-action, albeit with some animated sequences. There are links to Persepolis, including Abdi, a character who appeared in the animated movie. The movie adapted from Satrapi's graphic novel has been honored at Toronto, Venice, and Tribeca film festivals.
In 1958, violinist Nasser-Ali (Mathieu Amalric, Park Benches) goes on a journey for a Stradivarius. His son's along, since his wife Faranguisse (Maria de Medeiros, My Life Without Me) is a math teacher to support the family. He drives a bargain with the salesman, a fan. The next day, he gets up to play the Strad, even going to the barber and putting on his best suit to prepare himself. When Nasser opens the case, though, the first thing we notice is that the strings are broken. There, the narrator tells us, "he decided to die." His last eight days are chronicled, with diversions into his dreams and memories, along with the future of his children.
Anyone who's ever seen Pushing Daisies will likely have flashbacks to the short-lived series as they watch Chicken with Plums. It's got that combination of narration and a beautifully surreal look. There's even a pop-up book, wielded by Azrael, the Angel of Death (Edouard Baer, Wild Grass). By the end, though, Chicken with Plums is much sadder, a tale of lost love.
The first thing you'll take from Chicken with Plums is the images: a dark schoolroom eerily illuminated by the light from the windows above, a snowflake falling and eventually landing on a girl's tongue, the strange sitcom that illustrates the future of Nasser's son Cyrus, the illustrations in Azrael's pop-up book coming to life.
Eventually, though, the bitterness underneath Nasser's life comes through. Nasser was a successful violinist, traveling the world for years, but he lost the love of his life, a woman named Iran (not a coincidence, co-director Marjane Satrapi says), because of her father's disapproval. You might come to the conclusion that it was their last meeting and their failure to communicate their still-alive feelings that brought about his wasting, not the broken violin.
Chicken with Plums is a blend of matte, sets, and a touch of CGI, Satrapi tells us in the commentary ("Everything is completely fake"). It's seamless and always beautiful to look at. Even if you didn't have the subtitles to let you know what's going on, or didn't even care, the images are always interesting and will likely stick with you. Composer Olivier Bernet pairs it with a gently dreamlike score.
The commentary is in English, mostly. Satrapi speaks a lot, in English, with Vincent Paronnaud contributing some in French. It's a good glimpse of the craft that went into Chicken with Plums. Satrapi also contributes glimpses of her life in Iran; the title delicacy was her grandmother's specialty, and the men in her family said the plums reminded them of Sophia Loren. There's also a Q&A, again mostly with Satrapi talking, from the movie's Tribeca Film Festival premiere. A theatrical trailer emphasizes the film's honors and raves.
In the commentary, Marjane Satrapi says her film is "like life." Some viewers might prefer a more realistic tone for the sad story. Others might prefer more linear storytelling, although flashbacks and other story rearrangements have become commonplace in recent years, so it's not likely to confuse many viewers.
I also wouldn't recommend Chicken with Plums to anyone already in a sad mood. It often looks bright and cheerful, but it is, after all, a tragedy.
I didn't see Persepolis, but Chicken with Plums was impressive enough to pique my interest. It's deceptive at times, since its beauty hides its depth. Anyone who enjoys a strange cinematic trip once in a while should check it out.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 7.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13