Film Review – Chicken With Plums
Chicken with Plums tells the story of Nasser-Ali Khan (Mathieu Amalric), a concert violinist in 1950s Tehran. His treasured violin has been broken, and he cannot find satisfaction in any other instrument, not even a Stradivarius he has gone to great lengths to acquire. Life has lost its luster, and he decides it is no longer worth living. After hemming and hawing about how he is going to kill himself—everything seems so undignified and painful—he decides to take to his bed and wait for Death to come to him. He dies eight days later, and is buried by his grieving family. The film then circles back on itself and goes through each of those eight days, flashing back to the past and forward to the future, telling the story of Nasser-Ali’s life and giving us a peek into his children’s eventual prospects.
Directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud and based on one of Satrapi’s graphic novels, this is a gorgeous film that seamlessly blends live action and animation to create a magical Tehran. With the exception of one sequence, the animation takes a backseat to the live performances and is used only to turn reality into a heightened, more beautiful plane of existence: a city romanticized by memory. Mathieu Amalric is wonderful as Nasser-Ali, and he and the other actors are used for the characters at different stages of adulthood, with only hairstyle changes to indicate the passage of time, contributing to the already dream-like atmosphere of the film. Maria de Medeiros is also great as Nasser-Ali’s angry, shrewish wife, Faringuisse. Her grief is the emotional center of this film, and as quick as she is to slap out in anger, she is also longing to reach out in love; you can see every emotion she experiences on her face. As Nasser-Ali’s mother, Isabella Rossellini dominates the scenes she is in as much as her character dominates the lives of her sons. She is magnetic as a woman who believes that she knows what is best for her musician son who has returned from his world travels a little worse for wear.
All of this should add up to a great movie, but it doesn’t. It turns out the broken violin is not the real reason Nasser-Ali has given up on life, and the story behind what is really motivating him is supposed to be this huge revelation that causes us to understand his pain. Except that he is a total jerk. Because he suffered a crushing disappointment early in his adulthood, he has become a great musician. And an ass. He lets his sorrow shape his every action: he marries a woman he does not love or even try to love, he’s a crappy dad, and he has no drive to make his life bearable. Everyone around him is equally as annoying. His mother is controlling, his brother is a judgmental hypocrite, his children are horrible (and grow up to be even worse) and his wife is a nasty termagant. Faringuisse has loved Nasser-Ali for most of her life, and thought all of her dreams were coming true when they married. Except, Nasser-Ali only wed her at the urging of his mother: he did not care for Faringuisse at all. Over the years, she has come to realize this and has grown into a nasty, hate-filled nag. And yet, she is the only sympathetic character in the whole movie. As Nasser-Ali commences dying, she tries to reconcile with him and expresses her love as best she can, by cooking him his favorite dish, chicken with plums.
Chicken with Plums is a tragedy, and as such, it is really hard to care about tragic figures that are so unsympathetic. And the frequently comic tone of this film doesn’t help much either. It creates an expectation that there might be something positive in store for the audience—which never materializes—and this expectation undercuts the seriousness of what is happening. It’s a lovely film that drags a lot and never lets the audience care. Even Faringuisse’s grief did not draw me in, because her bitterness so overpowered her capacity for love. Also, I am not much of one to sympathize with Nasser-Ali’s “artistic temperament.” I don’t think one needs to be a jerk to be a great artist. Mostly it takes hard work and a willingness to fail repeatedly. This review was hard for me to write, because this film is much better than your average Hollywood fare, but it failed at gaining my sympathy in any way. It is both bleak and twee at the same time, and I found the combination did not work for me. I wanted it to be a tear-jerker or a magical-realistic comedy; the muddling of the two weakened whatever emotional impact it might have had, and made for an unsatisfying experience.
Final Grade: C+