I’m finding that quirky festival films from France are all looking the same. Like how all Subways smell the same, French films that are fanciful and whimsical also, weirdly, all have a similar kind of visual and narrative vibe. I don’t know what it is exactly, maybe because they are all influenced by their popular movie exports like Besson, Jeunet and the French new wave, but sitting down for Chicken With Plums felt very familiar. Not that that’s a bad thing, these Frenchy films are usually worth your time, it’s just that for a film about a violinist from Tehran, it’s pretty damn French.
Chicken With Plums has made the festival rounds for the past two years and has now landed on DVD. The same creative team that brought Persepolis to cinematic life have come back to make a live action feature of Satrapi’s story of a man and his love for a broken violin. That description alone should tell you that this film is festival bait, and it is. At times it’s beautiful and masterfully poetic but Chicken With Plums is also uneven and ultimately unsatisfying. Somewhere along the way something was lost in this adaptation, which makes me wonder if the filmmakers should have stuck with animation for this one.
The story revolves around Nasser Ali Khan, a skilled musician whose violin has been destroyed. Sinking into a deep depression he decides to lie in his bed for eight days to await death. During those days he sees into the future of his two children, into his own romantic past and gets a visit from the angel of death himself.
The film is well crafted with great visuals that seamlessly combine illustrated fairy-tale visuals with real world emotions and actors. It is too bad the the narrative itself isn’t as seamless. The film’s storytelling is uneven and directionless. It actually flounders until a silent film sequence near the end which if edited out of the film and let to stand on its own would probably have been nominated for an Academy Award for short subject. That is the problem with Chicken With Plums. It is able to reach such great artistic heights but still manages to go nowhere.
No blame could be given to the actors all of who give great performances. Mathieu Amalric as Nasser is able to convey more emotion in his facial expressions than an entire page of dialogue can. It is always a pleasure to see Maria de Medeiros, as Nasser’s long suffering wife, and Isabella Rossollini, as his mother, on the screen. At no point does the movie’s adventurous sets or special effects overshadow their performances.
The angel of death actually narrates the movie, played by Edouard Baër, which adds to the storybook like feeling. But the film shines when the fantasy 1958 Tehran facade is paused for simple emotional scenes between the actors. The film becomes engrossing during scenes that showcases the friction that forms between family members, father and children, husband and wife, brother and brother. The rest of the whimsy and fantasy of the film just becomes filler in-between.
The film is an Iranian story made by westerners for western audiences and that is a problem. The connections that we as an audience are supposed to be making, like art vs. politics, love vs. duty, or any cultural significance is diluted and lost. What is left is a nicely made, sad fairy-tale.
I give Chicken With Plums 2 out of 4 angels. If you have a dire need for a foreign art house film, this movie will quench your thirst. Otherwise it’s just par for the French course.
Chicken With Plums
Release Date: 2/26/13
Studio: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Screen Format: Anamorphic 2.35:1
Audio: French 5.1 w/ English Subtitles
Runtime: 91 minutes
- Commentary with Directors Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud
- Tribecca Q&A with Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi