Watching Chicken with Plums (Poulet aux Prunes)—Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's follow-up to Persepolis—I realized what it must be like to have dinner with a supermodel: a couple of hours of feasting the eyes, while wishing all along for something substantial and meaningful to happen.
The story opens in 1958 Tehran, with master musician Nasser Ali Khan (the amazing French actor Mathieu Amalric) on the trail of a violin that he hopes will rekindle his passion for playing. He travels north to seek out Houshang (Jamel Debbouze), a mysterious shopkeeper who claims to offer a Stradivarius originally belonging to Mozart. When he is disappointed yet again, Nasser Ali finds that he has no reason to go on, and decides to end it all. For the next seven days he remains in bed, calling upon the Angel of Death, and recalling his life journey through a haze of cigarette smoke and depression.
Along the way we meet Nasser Ali's wife Faranguisse (Maria de Medeiros), a shrewish woman who constantly badgers him about not earning a decent living; his underachieving children Cyrus and Lili; his overbearing mother (Isabella Rossellini, in yet another quirky role); and his politicized brother Abdi, the pragmatic counterpart to Nasser Ali's dreamer. There is also Iran (Golshifteh Farahani), the ethereally beautiful and tragically lost love of Nasser Ali's life. These characters swirl around the time-hopping storyline, and as we move back and forth with them it becomes increasingly clear that we, and the film, are lost at sea.
There is a worthwhile story to be told here, about the absence of passion in one's life and the devastation this absence can cause. But again and again Chicken with Plums eschews any sincere exploration of its own theme, opting instead for clever visual flourishes and diverting comic asides. To be fair, some of these sequences are quite impressive: a trip into the future to reveal what becomes of little Cyrus turns into an uproarious satire of modern American life; and a depiction of Socrates' last moments (don't ask!) rivals any of Family Guy's farcical throwaways. But there is precious little substance to anchor all the disparate bits, and as a result one never quite gets fully absorbed in the film. The doomed romance between Nasser Ali and Iran, presumably the narrative backbone, blooms too late in the film and is too tinged with cliché to really carry us through.
Still, even at a distance, the film's physical presence is undeniably striking and impressive. Satrapi and Paronnaud, both visual artists, have crafted a relentlessly interesting and innovative graphic novel of a film. Working with production designer Udo Kramer, they bring together a wide variety of media (digital and analog) and present an Iran that manages to be real and surreal at once. To top it all off, each and every frame is exquisitely lit and lensed by DP Christophe Beaucarne (Outside The Law, Coco Before Chanel). The cumulative result is never less than gorgeous, and often breathtakingly so.
I drove away from the screening of Chicken with Plums hoping that, before they tackle the next installment of their trilogy, Satrapi and Paronnaud study the work of Scorcese—especially his brilliant Hugo. It's a commendable thing to make an ultra-beautiful film, but truly great filmmaking means putting all the visual magic to the service of telling a fascinating tale.
Chicken with Plums opens in Los Angeles and New York on August 31st. In French, with English subtitles.
Omid Arabian is a writer and teacher living in Los Angeles. He is the Levantine Review's film editor.