DIRECTED BY: Vincent Paronnaud, Marjane Satrapi
PLOT: A master musician loses the will to live after his prized violin is destroyed, and retires to his deathbed where his story is told through flashbacks mingled with fantasy sequences.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It’s a movie made up mostly of deathbed hallucinations that includes visits with Socrates, the Angel of Death, and a giant version of Sophia Loren; that’s enough to get it on the weird map. The fact that it’s visually spectacular and delightfully artificial hurts not a bit.
COMMENTS: In the 1950s all doomed, elegant heroes and heroines in the movies smoked, and smoke is a key visual element of Chicken with Plums. Early in the film, master violinist Nasser-Ali reluctantly smokes opium at the insistence of an antiques dealer; later, his dead mother’s soul is so thick that it’s visible as a cloud of smoke hovering over her grave. Stylistically, the film is itself like smoke, wispy and constantly changing. Dream sequences, flashbacks and flash-forwards explore an expansive visual palette, ranging from figures isolated in Expressionist shadows to popup storybook animations. Everything is deliberately stagebound so that even in the “realistic” scenes, the skies are a hand-painted pink and lavender. The most jarring experiment is a moment where the movie suddenly turns into an American-style sitcom, complete with a laugh track; if you can handle that side trip, you’ll be in for the whole ride. Death-seeking Nasser-Ali, played with frowny melancholia by mustachioed Mathieu Amalric, is a selfish character, to be sure, but the more we learn about his backstory the more forgiving we become. We’re never able to absolve him entirely of his decision to abandon life (and his wife and children), but we do feel the weight he bears through his life, and can appreciate his decision as tragedy. Our hearts break the moment his does. Nasser-Ali’s apparently shrewish wife Faringuisse (de Medeiros) stars in an equally tragic subplot, and one of their two children is given an epilogue that generates further despair. It’s all very romantic, but the old, sentimental “love is worth dying for” theme plays believably only in the unreal movie past the film evokes: the formal world of yesteryear where gentlemen always wear ties, ladies wear hats, and everyone blows smoke directly at the camera. Chicken with Plums‘ 1930s-1950s time frame conjures up a comforting antique nostalgia, and the Iranian setting adds exotic spice. Delightfully strange moments include when the hallucinating musician is smothered in giant cleavage, a visitation from a ragged gravesite prophet, and the chilling appearance of the Angel of Death, who drops by not to claim Nasser-Ali’s soul but just to chat a bit and to tell a morbidly ironic story-within-the-story. Like a solo adagio played on an antique instrument, Nasser-Ali’s tale is beautiful and sad. Unabashedly artificial, unashamed to moon over lost loves, and a little aware of the absurdity of its own romanticism, Chicken with Plums hits a unique note: despondent whimsy.
Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi’s first film collaboration was the award-winning animated Persepolis (2007), adapted by Satrapi from her own autobiographical graphic novel. Chicken with Plums is also from a Satrapi comic, and supposedly tells the (obviously embellished) story of a relative of hers. On an unrelated note, this movie reunites Maria de Medeiros and Isabella Rossellini, last seen together in the Certified Weird The Saddest Music in the World.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The many surreal flourishes, like the film’s giant breasts and petals floating through a pink-tinged sky, are supposed to be absolved of cringing obviousness because they’re, you know, poetic and exotic.”–Farran Smith Nehme, The New York Post (contemporaneous)