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Non-Review Review: Chicken With Plums

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2012.

As the follow-up to Persepolis, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that there’s a lot of expectations around Marjane Satrapi’s follow-up, Chicken With Plums. The second in her trilogy of graphic novels, Chicken With Plums might fall a bit short of the heights that its predecessor reached, but there’s no denying that Satrapi and her co-director, Vincent Paronnaud, have composed a truly beautiful film. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Chicken With Plums might be the most beautiful film that you will see this year – a bold statement for late February. There are some very fundamental problems with the movie, most stemming from the fact that it can never decide if it’s a story or a collection of anecdotes, but it’s held together by superb artistic direction and a charming central performance from Mathieu Amalric.

A man at peace, but with inner violin...

Stylistically, Chicken With Plums is breath-taking. Even in its most grounded moments, around Nasser-Ali’s house, it’s still hauntingly beautiful. With a highly stylised production design, perfectly blending traditional sets with artistic use of computer-generate imagery, the movie has a wonderful look to it – something that immediately distinguishes it from just about anything that you’re going to see in cinemas today.

It feels like a pure flight of cinematic fancy, where anything can and will happen. The movie will shift from live action to stop motion, and the sets will go from reasonably realistic portrayals of familiar environments to consciously stylised surroundings. This is a movie where a fully-grown Mathier Amalric can disappear into his dream girl’s busom, or where the far side of the room can seem half the world away. There’s no way to discuss the appearance of the film without using the word “beautiful.”

Putting his mother issues to bed...

And the storytelling is similarly engaging. The film shifts genres and styles with remarkable ease, treating us to flashbacks and flashforwards, anecdotes and metaphors, dreams and reality. The movie isn’t structured into a conventional narrative, instead feeling like we’re savouring chunks being served in a stew. While it is, apparently, about the eight days before heart-broken violinist Nasser-Ali passed away, during which he confined himself to bed having “decided to die”, the film refuses to be so rigidly defined. We get titlecards informing us of how far into his eight-day death Nasser-Ali might be, and yet we’ll spend time with children growing up and jump back to his early romance and so on and so forth.

These individual segments are of variable quality. The production values are top notch, as noted above, but some feel like conscious pandering. I’ve heard that story about death countless times, even if I can’t point to the movie where I last saw it. We’re also treated to a cliché-ridden condemnation of American cultural values as we watch what happens to Nasser-Ali’s son when he flies to America. If any major American picture featured such a stereotypical portrayal of any other culture, it would spark a media campaign, but the problem is that the gag isn’t really funny enough to sustain its length.

A plum role for Amalric...

That said, those are the exceptions rather than the rule. Some of the flashbacks are incredibly moving, like the loss of Nasser-Ali’s mother. Others are shrewdly observed through the flawed lens of memory, as Nasser-Ali’s childhood is distorted to a ridiculous degree. As the obligatory “bad seed”, Nasser-Ali watches his headmaster instruct his fellow children to cheer his brother, the “good seed.” However, when they are finished, the headmaster instructs them to boo the bad seed, in what seems like a sharp take on a familiar situation.

However, the movie’s problem isn’t that the individual scenes don’t work, as the vast majority do. The problem is that the movie can never decide if it’s telling Nasser-Ali’s story, or serving as a sort of stream-of-thought narrative. We get random segues, but we also get vital back story. The movie can’t seem to decide which approach to take. Visiting Nasser-Ali’s deathbed, the angel Azrael suggests that he might tell a story purely because he has time to kill. It’s hard not to feel like the writers might have felt the same way – trying to fill out a bit of room with scenes that work on their own, but don’t really play into the larger story or themes.

Sweet music...

There’s also the fact that Nasser-Ali is a hard character to engage with. Amalric gives a wonderful central performance, and he’s the only reason we care for Nasser-Ali at all, but he’s not really enough. There’s no way to paint any of what is happening as truly romantic. A violinist of incredible talent, Nasser-Ali decides to simply die when that talent disappears one day. That includes dying slowly in front of his two young children, and leading his wife to believe that she spurred his decision. “I’ll never forgive you,” he suggests.

The final reel suggests that something else was at play, which serves to undermine the movie’s central romance. It’s hard to feel sorry for our central character, and to engage with his journey towards enlightenment (or, at least, peace) when the decision is so incredibly selfish and reckless. The movie concedes that he’s just being a jerk, but it doesn’t make us any more likely to emotionally connect with him – which is a necessary step in getting us to engage with the beautiful imagery unfolding on screen. Amalric does his level-best with the material, and directors Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi present a visually engaging tale, but there’s never any reason for us to emotionally engage.

Iran, so far away...

Don’t get me wrong. I would recommend seeking it out, if only for the visual feast. And, to be honest, most of the scenes work well enough on their own that you don’t notice that you’re not really engaged with the central emotional thread until the last possible moment. It is stunning and impressive, and breathtakingly realised. However, the resulting film is as delicate as it is beautiful. If you look at it too hard, it might break.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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