While I enjoyed “Persepolis” with reservations (I preferred the flat black & white graphic style of the book to the modeled colored animation) I am gaga over Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s follow up film, the magical realist live-action romance “Chicken With Plums”.
Nasser-Ali Khan is the greatest violinist of his day. But it wasn’t always so. His teacher, the great Master Musician (Didier Flamand), sends the young musician away because, although he is a great technician, his music is empty.
A chance sighting of the glorious Irâne, a clockmaker’s daughter, sets his life on its trajectory. The two young people enjoy a passionate courtship but Irâne is forbidden to marry the penniless musician with no prospects. The downcast suitor returns to his Master who rewards him. Now you are a great artist! Your lost love breathes in every note you play. She has given you a great gift. Thrilled the master passes on the violin of his own master.
With the precious violin in hand, Nasser travels the globe to great acclaim. He knows success and other lovers but never love. As the Master predicted, Irâne’s memory inspires the melancholy beauty of his music. Returning to Iran, his mother decides he must marry, “Love will follow” instructs his mother and he marries Faringuisse (Maria de Medeiros) and has two children. Nothing matters to him. He’s a ghost, haunting his own life.
A chance meeting with Irâne, who pretends not to recognize him to protect her family, re-breaks his heart and Faringuisse, enraged at his moods smashes his violin. Unable to find a worthy replacement, already grieving a life without his true love, Nasser-Ali decides to die. The film takes place during his last eight days.
Shot at Germany’s famed Babelsburg Studio in Potsdam, the film is a valentine to the magic of movies. A compendium of the magic tricks from the Studio System mixed with some modern tricks makes for a witty story within a story. It is alternatingly melancholy and surprisingly funny, like its leading man Mathieu Amalric (“Cosmopolis”, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) whose nimble larger than life body language and soulful expressions straddle the films mix of emotions and styles. I can’t wait for him to play a full out comedy lead.
Near the end of the film, after a series of increasingly fascinating tangents, the filmmakers unleash the romantic melodrama at the heart of the story: a glorious Technicolor montage of a decades-long love story that plays like a Sirk film in hyper time. (Pete Docter’s ‘Up” featured a heart wrenching 4-minute montage of Carl and Ellie’s Married Life, which also played as a film within a film.)
An impeccable cast of international French-speaking actors is supported by an intricate, inventive script, which moves us forwards, backwards and sideways in time. In one of my favorite moments, brothers Nasser-Ali and Abdi discuss a sly dealer of curiosities and Houshang appears behind them in a filmic aside, in a practical effect that on the stage would have been achieved with a scrim.
In one scene, Moonstruck Aziz chases Irâne through the streets. We just see his shoes disappearing around corners into her father’s jewelry shop where the hapless fool buys a valuable clock. Aziz repeatedly breaks the gilt clock in order to have an excuse to visit Irâne’s father’s shop in the hopes of seeing her. They shoot one of the visits like a silent comedy, Olivier Bernet’s score evoking the mood as the annoyed shopkeeper and Aziz discuss the seemingly endless problems with the clock.
When the film’s budget shrunk by two-thirds, the resourceful team reverted to a charming animation sequence. When Azraël the Angel of Death comes to call, he tells him a story. He flips open a pop-up book and it becomes an animated shaggy dog story set in old Jerusalem.
Golshifteh Farahani floats through the film as the lovely Irâne, the “jeune fille bien élevée” who loves Aziz but can’t disobey her father. Eric Caravaca is perfect as Aziz’s concerned brother Abdi, a revolutionary whose prison bail ate up the family fortune. Jamel Debbouze charms as the wiley opium smoking antiques dealer and hop-head Houshang / Le mendiant.
Writer/director/actor Edouard Baer (“Mensonges et Trahisons”) plays the inky black Angel of Death Azraël, whose flashing eyes and winsome smile signal his range of emotions, while his clawed nails tap on the table in impatience. Baer also narrates in the wry vocal style of Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim.”
Isabella Rossellini (channeling her mother) is marvelous as Nasser’s autocratic mother Parvine, a cultured sophisticate who bulldozes him into marrying the girl next door, poor unloved Faringuisse, Maria de Medeiros, with her joie-laide face and lemur eyes manages to make us care for the unwanted bride, in a role reminiscent of the arranged brides (often married for fiscal reasons) in countless Italian comedies of the 60’s
Chiara Mastroianni has never been better playing the grown Lili, a compulsive gambler and smoker. Shown in vignette closeups, her eyes smoldering under brunnete hair, she reveals a satiric edge crying for a major role worthy of her sarcastic charm.
Armenian director/actor Serge Avedikian plays Irâne’s protective father who sends the penniless musician away. (Avedikian recently directed the beautiful hand painted animated short “Barking Island” (winner of the 2010 Cannes Palme D’ors short award.) a metaphoric tale of Constantinople’s destruction of its feral dogs with parallels to the Armenian genocide.
An homage to the storytelling stylists of the Studio System: Powell and Pressburger, Minnelli, Hitchcock and the German expressionists, Satrapi and Paronnaud use a kit bag of practical old school tricks-painted backdrops, trompe l’oeil, mattes, miniatures and models.
Udo Kramer’s ingenious art direction, Christophe Beaucarne’s striking cinematography, which evokes German Expressionism, Fellini and silent film serials, and Stéphane Roche’s clever intricate edit add muscle to a consummate team effort. Their fabular collaboration left me sitting, mouth agape, like a kid at the movies.
Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novels Persepolis 1 & 2 brought her worldwide acclaim. A key figure in underground comic books Paronnaud and partner Cizo co-created the iconic Monsieur Ferraille of the influential magazine “Ferraille Illustré” Some of his dark graphic novels, published under the alias of Winshluss” include Wizz et Buzz, Pinocchio, Smart Monkey and Super-Negra. The pair is working on the third film of their trilogy based on Satrapi’s complex family story. A MUST SEE