Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
October 2012

Chicken with Plums

Sad sack

An unapologetically whiny main character leaves 'Chicken with Plums' with a gaping emotional void

Chicken with Plums
Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud
Screenplay: Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, based on the graphic novel by Satrapi
Starring: Mathieu Amalric, Maria de Medeiros, Golshifteh Farahani, Edouard Baer, Eric Caravaca and Isabella Rossellini
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 33 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

Chicken with Plums is as close to an animated movie as live-action can be - which makes sense, considering it's Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's follow-up to their excellent feature debut, Persepolis, an Oscar nominee for best animated film in 2007.

In fact, pieces of Chicken with Plums actually are animated, and they interact seamlessly with the rest; it all exists within the same fanciful universe. More than anything, it plays like a live re-enactment of a storybook - which, again, is fitting, as it was based on a graphic novel by Satrapi herself. I haven't read the book, but sight unseen, I would assume many of its pages are nearly identical to some of the shots in the filmed version.

But therein lies the problem. The shots are, across the board, magnificent, which is why I've had a hard time reconciling my feelings for the movie as a whole, which are ultimately lukewarm. I guess the root of my issue is that the film seems to operate only like a storybook, and not enough like a movie. I can cite plenty of other films or filmmakers with storybook aesthetics - Wes Anderson comes to mind - that have pulled off the balance successfully. Anderson's films, for example (especially The Royal Tenenbaums, Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom), feel like they exist within hand-drawn pages embroidered with decorative borders, but they also have a depth of feeling, sense of movement and storytelling propulsion that are purely cinematic. Chicken with Plums, on the other hand, plays out like a slideshow set to narration - and thus often comes across as strangely inert.

That it also features many of the most striking images I've seen at the theatre all year is what troubles me. I desperately wanted to love this movie, but there's a gaping hole that prevented me from doing so.

The story boils down to a long-lost love and the toll it takes, over 20 or so years, on a tormented violinist named Nasser (the always-great Mathieu Amalric). The hitch is, we don't even get to this supposedly epic romance until more than halfway through the movie, and when we do get it, it's no epic romance at all, but fragmented pieces of one that add up to an unsatisfying and shallow whole.

We are expected to connect with the melodramatic bullet points of the story, probably because they're so familiar (and, presumably, universal) - Look! It's the young woman's overbearing father keeping the two lovers apart! - but as the romantic pairing itself is never really explored with any depth, what we're left with is a beginning and an end to a romance, but with nothing in between. (The courtship scenes, however, are quite lovely.)

This is the film's key failure because that very lack of substance dramatically affects the depiction of the central character. When we meet Nasser, he's been stuck in an unhappy marriage for many years, his violin has been shattered and he is unable (or unwilling) to find a worthy replacement, and he has lost his will to live. In fact, he resolutely decides to die, thinking over (in an inspired sequence) several different suicidal scenarios before ultimately deciding on the most passive one imaginable.

His depression and self-absorption are rightly played for humor during much of the film. However, the devastating loss of his beloved Irâne (Golshifteh Farahani) should presumably put his behavior in context. It has, after all, been haunting him ever since. But once we discover what it is we've been enduring his relentless moping for, we have little reason to feel sorry for him. Perhaps he and Irâne had a great love affair; but if they did, we never see it.

The unintended consequence is that the film never winds up justifying his persistent, whiny narcissism. It only indulges it. Our sympathy is (or at least should be) reserved for his long-suffering wife Faringuisse (Maria de Medeiros), who has loved him unequivocally since even before their marriage, knowing all along the feeling wasn't mutual. If there is any tragic story, it is hers, and perhaps that would have made for a more interesting story. It's also a fine performance by de Medeiros, whose eyes reveal a near-constant feeling of heartache, counterbalanced with a naive emotional perseverance.

Maybe I'm reading things wrong, and maybe Nasser is meant to be seen as the complete and total ass that he is, and is meant to be as unworthy of our sympathy as he so thoroughly proves himself to be. But somehow I doubt it. Chicken with Plums is built on the memory of his doomed love story. That is its emotional core - only it never gets there.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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