Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s follow-up to Persepolis is neither as memorable nor as urgent a tale, but it’s a much better film. Where Persepolis felt like a gruesomely edited version of Satrapi’s books, made for people who don’t want to read (and don’t want to read comics), Chicken With Plums—based on her 2004 comic—is more self-contained, less sprawling, and therefore a comfier fit for the abbreviated movie form.
The focus is on the eight final days of one Nasser Ali (Mathieu Amalric), an acclaimed violinist in 1950s Tehran. His violin has been broken and, unable to find a suitable replacement—and rather a bit of a diva—he decides to end his life. The narrative playfully jumps to his funeral early on, to show he means business, then jumps back to dwell on him as he lies confined to his bed. The leapfrogging continues with his memories, painting a picture not only of his life and his eccentric—and typically tragicomic—musings, but also of the bygone era of tony Iran in the middle of the last century.
The tone is mordant and dreamy, the structure filled with deviations and detours. Nasser Ali’s attempt to summon Socrates and offer pithy final thoughts to his young children proves loopily disastrous, while a memory of Sofia Loren summons a dream where he’s enveloped by cartoonishly elephantine cleavage. Chicken also encourages more from Satrapi and Paronnaud as still-nascent filmmakers. Persepolis was boxed into its sketchy B&W animation esthetic. Chicken is live-action, yet, oddly, a more visual film, with blatantly artificial sets, painterly backgrounds, lush camerawork and, inevitably, sudden fits of animation.
The trade-off is, alas, the overall narrative, which eventually hits a structural snag. In the final stretch, the tone changes, and there abruptly arises a tragic romance angle, concerning the love of Nasser Ali’s life (Golshifteh Farahani), whose father forbade their marriage. Chicken pushes this revelation to the final act, treating it like a twist—and, unfortunately, therefore robbing us of what would have been a more emotional and trenchant look at the effects of love thwarted. There’s enough off-hand insights and goodies to atone for this conceptual hiccup, although one wonders if the story perhaps worked better on paper.