Atmospheric Chicken with Plums a Matter of Life and Death
Nasser-Ali Khan’s (Mathieu Amalric) heart is broken. A revered musician, his wife Faringuisse (Maria de Medeiros) has smashed his treasured violin into pieces. No other instrument achieves the same sort of sound, the same emotional resonances, his was able to attain. Even with his young children Lili (Enna Balland) and Cyrus (Mathis Bour) looking on, even with so much still to live for, Nasser Ali has decided it is time to die, crawling into to bed to await the arrival of Azraël (Edouard Baer), the Angel of Death, to take him into the afterlife.
Chicken with Plums is an odd, heartfelt, eccentrically emotional little movie that never quite went in the directions I kept assuming it was going to go. Playing with the past and the present, life and death and even space and time with irreverent playfulness, this is a tragic yet hopeful story speaking to the power of the human spirit while at the same time commenting on humanity’s inability to see much further than the end of its nose. Directors Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi follow up the award-winning animated Persepolis with an equally dazzling, if not always cohesive, frolic through the mind of a man who’s maybe descended into madness, making it a surreal curiosity worthy of getting a look at.
For all the weirdly imaginative whimsy, it is still a little hard to not feel like the duo’s sophomore effort can be fairly depressing stuff at times. It isn’t just that Nasser-Ali wants to die, it’s the flashforwards depicting the lives of his children and the flashbacks showcasing how his mother Parvine (Isabella Rossellini) helped slip him into a loveless marriage. It is the story of the musician’s one true love Irâne (Golshifteh Farahani) and the forces that have kept them apart, even potential reconciliation denied because of the fear that embracing desire might lead to eternal damnation, an infernal turn of events that pretty much comes to pass anyhow.
It’s rough stuff, and even with Baer’s somewhat aloof yet quirkily jovial narration, the fact so much pain and suffering is inflicted on seemingly every character doesn’t make for an entirely pleasant night at the theatre. At the same time, Paronnaud and Satrapi, working from the latter’s graphic novel, manage to produce an essence of light, a sense of hope amidst the hopelessness, that’s empathetically all-encompassing. The movie shifts gears and tones with cunning frequency, melding high with low and up with down at every turn.
Visually speaking, there’s been little else I’ve seen this year that equals what Paronnaud and Satrapi have achieved with this. Mixing animation with live actors, photorealistic computer effects with images of nature in all their naked glory, the movie is an aggressively ambitious sensory achievement that pushes the medium in fascinating ways. It is an expressionistic marvel much of the time, Christophe Beaucarne’s (Paris) sumptuous cinematography and Udo Kramer’s (Young Goethe in Love) eye-popping production design notable standouts worthy of rapturous applause.
I do have trouble shaking my general unease at the destination Chicken with Plums ends up at. The sadness of the moment is unshakable, and finding hope in the calamity of this denouement is difficult to do. Still, Paronnaud and Satrapi make the jump from animation to live-action with assertive confidence, while echoes of Bergman, Jeunet, Wilder, Lynch, Powell/Pressburger and most of all Lubitsch noticeably linger throughout. The movie is frequently mystifying, yet it still remains an emotionally captivating marvel in all the ways that matter most. As fantasies of life and death go, this is one I’m going to be pondering for quite a long time.
Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)