“Chicken with Plums” is a film which would not have worked at all if it had been without its own distinctive style and humor. Its story is so old-fashioned that the movie is frequently on the verge of looking silly and ridiculous as it looks around its melodramatic tale chapter by chapter, but its stylish approach makes us accept that its broad characters are living in an artificial world based on nostalgic romanticism mixed with a bit of magic realism.
The story revolves around the last week of a violinist named Nasser-Ali Kahn(Mathieu Almaric). He is living in Teheran in 1958, and the city looks far gentler and more European than it has looked since that turbulent era of the 1970s. Some of you may tell me that the country at that time also had a fair share of problems, but you cannot possibly expect something realistic from the film when its production design is full of nostalgic ambience and some of its landscapes are drawn in animation.
Nasser-Ali Kahn has been recently distraught because his bitter and angry wife Faringuisse(Maria de Medeiros) broke his beloved violin during their another quarrel. He has been trying to find a perfect replacement violin for him, but none of the violins he found has satisfied him. The latest one looks like a good one, but he quickly returns it as soon as he plays it just because it does not feel right to him.
On one day, he hears that there is a very good violin in the region far from the city. He immediately goes there to buy it, and he eventually gets it after some talk with a strange shop owner who owns it. After returning to his home with the violin, he plays it in private, and, after he senses that his problem is not from violin, he decides to die. After considering several suicide options, he concludes that the best way for him is just confining himself in his bedroom and not eating for days while waiting for death, so he instantly starts his slow walk toward death as he decides.
This may sound grim or ridiculous, but the movie sets a playful tone from the beginning, and even a dark subject like suicide is presented with an ample amount of humor while Nasser-Ali ruminates on each option during one humorous montage. As his body is weakened day by day, his mind looks around his life in the past, his family at present, and the future after his death, and there is even a sinisterly cordial visit from Azraël(Edouard Baer), the Angel of Death. As Azraël, a dark hooded dude with a good sense of grim humor, tells him an ironic tale about his fateful encounter with a rich man, the movie digresses into full animation mode, and it is another visually pleasing moment to watch in the film.
The movie introduces more characters into the story as the memories from Nasser-Ali’s life are unfolded in front of us. We see his left-wing brother Abdi(Eric Caravaca) and their school days during their childhood. We see how Nasser-Ali’s mother(Isabella Rossellini) forced him into a loveless marriage with Faringuisse, who had actually loved him since she set her eyes on him and had quietly waited for his love. She looks like a mean wife on the surface, but we come to see how she has been suffering from the fact that her husband has not shown any love to her while only caring about his art and his violin(An useful lesson: living with a good artist is never easy for you especially if he is too self-absorbed in his art).
It is turned out that his heart already went toward a young, beautiful woman named Irâne(lovely Golshifteh Farahani). He was fallen in love with her when she passed by him, and, not long after he officially introduced himself to her, their romance was quickly blossomed in front of purple/pink sky with white flowers slowly falling from a tree in the wind. They were really in love, but they faced the reality because of Irâne’s father, who would not allow a nameless artist to marry his precious daughter. The heartbreak followed, and, while we get a classic example of how an artist is sometimes inspired by a broken heart rather than a fulfilled one, we come to learn more about Nasser-Ali’s choice to kill himself through one heartbreaking sequence which wordlessly shows the passage of the time and accompanying bitter sadness.
For their picturesque story, the directors Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud shot the film at the Babelsberg Studios in Berlin to create their beautiful world of memories and fantasies. I have to mention a fantastic moment when the cigarette smoke from Nasser-Ali’s dying mother flies away from her bed and then hovers above her grave later. This surely looks unrealistic, but the movie has enough imagination to make it feel real even though it looks outrageous(this scene even has a weirdly looking savant appearing out of nowhere and explaining that the smoke is her soul), and we are amused by it rather than disbelieving it.
The actors play their caricature characters with broad touches; their exaggerated performances are a little too distracting, but the movie is not the story requiring realistic characters from the start. With his ever-widened eyes, Mathieu Almalric somehow makes us care about Nasser-Ali and his sad tragedy even though he is unlikable in some aspects(In objective view, he is actually pretty lousy as a husband and a father). Chiara Mastroianni is fun to watch during the segment showing an imagined adult life of Nasser-Ali’s little daughter, and Maria de Medeiros shows a sympathetic side inside her shrill character; as we know more about Faringuisse, we feel sorry for her, and it is poignant to see her at one point where she tries to change her stubborn husband’s mind through her chicken with plums.
Some notable animation directors have recently tried to direct live action film, and Satrapi and Paronnaud, who previously made Oscar-nominated animation film “Persepolis”(2007), make a nice transition here with this film. It does not have a strong focus unlike their previous film, but it has many wonderful scenes to be appreciated where sadness comes with quirky humor, and I found it a charming film in the end. It’s surely old-fashioned, but it comes with style and humor to show the magic inside.