Editor’s Notes: The following review of Chicken with Plums is a part of a collection of reviews by Ronan Doyle during his attendance of the 10th Annual Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.
Given the acclaim it was met with and the impressive list of awards and nominations it accrued, following up 2007’s Persepolis was the kind of task sure to pose a challenge for writer/director team Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud. There was in Persepolis that rare mixture of riotous comedy and grating drama, perfectly blended to deliver one of the most funnily affecting tales of life in Iran, and a gentle but no less damning analysis of the country’s political landscape. Now comes the duo’s second film Chicken with Plums, a live-action adaptation of another of Satrapi’s graphic novels, spanning the last eight days in the life of celebrated violinist Nasser-Ali Khan in the wake of his decision to simply let himself die. Distraught when his favorite violin is broken and he finds none other to be good enough, he takes to bed a joyless man and vows never to leave it, informing his family that he has had enough of life.
The many scenes set in Nasser-Ali’s bedroom are shot with an expressionistic majesty that turns shadows and light into tangible streams of flowing memory, brief glimpses into a past life distorted by retrospection and darkened by the bitterness of regret
Much like Persepolis before it, one of the great talking points surrounding Chicken with Plums is the wonderful style of Paronnaud and Satrapi’s direction. The many scenes set in Nasser-Ali’s bedroom are shot with an expressionistic majesty that turns shadows and light into tangible streams of flowing memory, brief glimpses into a past life distorted by retrospection and darkened by the bitterness of regret. These exaggeratedly chiaroscuro sequences are among the best things the film has to offer, brilliant exemplars of the directors’ fantastic visual sensibilities and extraordinary aesthetic standard. The absence of either the political context or factual basis of their debut as a team, however, makes Chicken with Plums a considerably less effective film than Persepolis. This is a story that relies heavily upon getting behind the characters it concerns, something made rather difficult by the structure of the plot.
The major problem is in the character of Nasser-Ali himself. It may seem cynical, given the comedic irreverence with which the plot point is introduced, but his suicide is fundamentally irresponsible and his treatment of his wife so unreasonable that it never feels wholly possible to relate to him. It’s not hard to understand his frustration at being robbed of the passion of musical expression, but such a drastic course of action paints him as a thoughtlessly dramatic character far removed from reality. Again, the almost fantastic manner in which his story is presented makes more acceptable his determined self-sacrifice, but it’s never acceptable enough. Only in its final thirty minutes does the film really manage to make us understand his rationale, by which time many will have passed the point of no return. There is, by the film’s conclusion, a sense of compassion for and solidarity with Nasser-Ali, but Chicken with Plums spends so much time focusing upon his selfishness without explanation that it becomes difficult to be swayed from a feeling of discordance with the character.
These are beautifully crafted and carry the same joyous reverie as Paronnaud and Satrapi’s first film, but they also reflect the primary issues at the heart of Chicken with Plums: unnecessary and distracting stylistic departures and a consistent sense of thematic uncertainty
There are interesting moments where Nasser-Ali’s recollections will take the form of miniature cartoons, of course drawing instant parallels to Persepolis. These are beautifully crafted and carry the same joyous reverie as Paronnaud and Satrapi’s first film, but they also reflect the primary issues at the heart of Chicken with Plums: unnecessary and distracting stylistic departures and a consistent sense of thematic uncertainty. While the film at large is a resplendent display of unique and bizarre images, there are certain directorial choices that detract from the overall effect. A particularly memorable example is a scene of the future where we are shown the life to come of Nasser-Ali’s son, parodically shot in the style of an American sitcom. The sketch, such as it is, runs almost five minutes in length, a decent chunk of the film’s total time that takes it further and further from its potential greatness in service of a mediocre gag. Such tangential segments permeate the narrative, abandoning the otherwise admirable style of the film and therein mirroring the uneasy meshing of dramatic and comedic sensibilities at play in the story itself.
Throughout Chicken with Plums there are certain moments of comedy that, while amusing in and of themselves, jar with the more dramatic aspects of the story. This is an idea from which one could craft a successful drama or comedy; in attempting to blur the boundaries and incorporate equal elements of both, Paronnaud and Satrapi compromise the film as a whole to a certain degree, effectively giving it an unstable bipolarity that never really works. Perhaps it is the unabashed quirk of the humour that makes its union with the rest of the film so uneasy; there is a silliness to the comedy—an ancient Greek farting joke, for instance—that seems at odds with the depressive bleakness of Nasser-Ali’s fate. This tonal imbalance aside, the deftness with which Chicken with Plums handles its romantic elements should not be understated. The slow revelation to us of the details behind Nasser-Ali’s life is taunting, ensuring a constant engagement with the narrative. Even the aforementioned aversion to sympathising with Nasser-Ali begins to waver as the reality behind his past reveals itself, earning his story a new context that, for many, will be enough to forgive his shortcomings.
Perhaps it is the unabashed quirk of the humour that makes its union with the rest of the film so uneasy; there is a silliness to the comedy—an ancient Greek farting joke, for instance—that seems at odds with the depressive bleakness of Nasser-Ali’s fate
Paronnaud and Satrapi may fail to combine comedy and drama as successfully as in Persepolis, but Chicken with Plums shapes itself into an endearing dark romantic fantasy nonetheless. Despite some serious issues at play in the central conceit that could justifiably alienate viewers, this becomes in its last act a witty and heartfelt tale of lost love and broken dreams. That it is only in these fleeting scenes that one can truly connect with the film’s central character is the problematic outcome of a misguided structure focused too much on quirky comedy and not enough on building relatable human beings. This is an enjoyable and beautifully directed work from a hugely talented filmmaking duo, but it’s a long way from the great piece it might have been.
[notification type=”star”]67/100 ~ OKAY. Paronnaud and Satrapi may fail to combine comedy and drama as successfully as in Persepolis, but Chicken with Plums shapes itself into an endearing dark romantic fantasy despite some serious issues at play in the central conceit that could justifiably alienate viewers.[/notification]