After her highly acclaimed adaptation of her autobiographical graphic novel Persepolis (2007), Marjane Satrapi comes to this year’s Venice Film Festival with her first live-action film, Chicken with Plums (2011, Poulet aux prunes), again an adaptation of her eponymous graphic novel and directed together with Vincent Paronnaud. This time, the film is less overtly autobiographical and political, presenting itself as a traditional love story in true Persian style.
Set in Tehran in 1958 at the time of the American-backed coup of Iran, this is the story of a world-famous violinist, Nasser Ali (Mathieu Amalric), whose violin is broken. Unable to find a suitable replacement – not even a Stradivarius will do – Nasser Ali decides to end his life and takes to his bed for a week to await his death. The story flits between present and past as we piece together Nasser Ali’s life and the trajectory that has led him to his deathbed. And just as time is not linear, so Chicken with Plums shifts from comedy to tragedy with some magic realism and sitcom in between, not to mention a glimpse of Satrapi and Paronnaud’s animation mastery.
Nasser Ali (a tar player in the book) studied the violin under a great master upon a mountain overlooking Tehran. The master tells him he has great technique but that he lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. One day he sees and falls in love with the beautiful Irâne (Golshifteh Farahani) and follows her to her clockmaker father’s shop.
After many comic scenes of Nasser Ali purchasing and sabotaging a clock in order to see his beloved, he plucks up the courage to talk to her and so begins their romance. However, Irâne’s father forbids them to wed and, broken hearted, Nasser Ali finds that certain something missing from his playing and becomes a great virtuoso performer, travelling the world.
On his return to Iran, our hero is coerced into a loveless marriage to Faringuisse (Maria de Medeiros) by his domineering mother (Isabella Rossellini). They have two children and Faringuisse is forced to work all hours to support her kids and feckless husband. Though depicted as a harridan, Faringuisse is actually a lovelorn woman. Having loved Nasser Ali from afar for years, when they marry this love is never reciprocated, leaving her bitter and heartbroken.
We also meet Nasser Ali’s brother, Abdi (Eric Caravaca) and discover that he was once imprisoned for his political activities as a Communist, and to pay for his freedom his family was financially ruined. Other characters include an opium-smoking antiquarian (Jamel Debbouze) and we see Nasser Ali’s children grow up: his son into a stupid American and his daughter into a chain-smoking poker fiend (Chiara Mastroianni).
Irâne is an allegory of her country, Iran. Though time passes and changes take place, the hero’s love for Irâne never diminishes and though we see her marry a military officer, her love remains constant. This constancy (despite what we know is to follow) could perhaps be seen as nostalgia for Iran’s democratic past and/or hope for its future reinstatement. The clock (still in Nasser Ali’s married home) also represents this theme of ageing, change and constancy.
More than any other film at the 2011 Venice Film Festival, Chicken with Plums takes the audience into a magical and wonderful space. It provokes a lot of laughs but was also the only time I saw audience members crying openly and unashamedly, Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud managing to evince emotions from the most cynical of cinema audiences. Mathieu Amalric’s portrayal of the likable, selfish Nasser Ali could be a contender for a Best Actor, though the charm and whimsy of the film may be too much for the festival jurors to offer Chicken with Plums the big prize – the Golden Lion.
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