Graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) teams up once again with Vincent Paronnaud to translate Chicken With Plums from the pen and ink realm into moving frames. Documenting her artistic and personal coming of age against the backdrop of a cultural revolution in Persepolis, Satrapi employed the darkness of hand-drawn frames as a reflection of her journey from oppression to the light of self-determination.
Nasser-Ali Khan (Mathieu Amalric), a gifted violinist saddled with a wife, Faringuisse (Maria de Medeiros), and two young children, lives to play, to the point where it seems his passion for music overwhelms every other aspect of his life. He is a man of action (at least as far as music moves the soul), a solid and serious figure, wandering through a static world. As we see him early on, he’s on a quest to obtain a new violin, one with that perfectly exquisite sound that he hears in his head. He travels far and wide, pays more than he can obviously afford and endures threats to his sensibilities, but when he returns home with the instrument, it fails to match his old reliable tool, which is revealed to be broken —who knows how.
This is the last straw for Nasser-Ali and in that moment, he decides it is time to put an end to this ordeal, this struggle in the face of such an extreme lack of hope or promise. And as a man of passion, Nasser-Ali knows that even his own demise needs to exhibit the inspiration and sense of personal character that used to define him. In her poetic brief “Resume,” Dorothy Parker summarized options for suicide and rationales against each: “Razors pain you;/Rivers are damp;/Acids stain you;/And drugs cause cramp./Guns aren’t lawful;/Nooses give;/Gas smells awful;/You might as well live.”
Nasser-Ali sticks to his guns, if you will, and fashions a more passive path to his end; he simply decides to wait in his room for death to come claim him.
The rest of Chicken With Plums charts those final days, but does so by freeing itself from linear constraints. The narrative dances, suite-like, through the movements, past and future, of Nasser’s life and the lives of his children and offers up the secrets, the truth behind his profound melancholy. The days play out like the chapters of an epic romance, albeit one that achieves an epic scope by delving deeper and deeper into the intimacies of a life writ small.
The filmmakers carefully place Amalric’s Nasser-Ali against frames seemingly lifted from the graphic novel to illustrate the fullness of his passion and life. He is the main character of his story and no one else takes shape or form without gaining some spark from him.
Amalric, familiar to mainstream audiences likely for his work in Munich and Quantum of Solace, draws, here, more from his performance in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, where he played Jean-Dominique Bauby, a European Elle magazine editor who suffered a stroke that rendered him paralyzed except for his left eye. For most of that film, Amalric communicated the vitality of a man reduced to one largely passive body part, which somehow seizes command and demands attention. And in Chicken With Plums, it is through the eyes that we enter the soul of Nasser-Ali. Amalric’s oversized orbs are alive, eager and ready at a moment’s notice to burst free from his head to go their own way. Whether capturing the sadness at the onset or peeling through those layers back to the point where there was joy and love, the expressiveness of his eyes almost make his face obsolete.
For all its charms, though, Chicken With Plums suffers because it is so linked to its graphic roots. Graphic novels aren’t seen as the place for such intimate character-driven storytelling. Instead, we imagine those frames as the starting point for flashy cut-and-paste action sequences stuffed end-to-end with men (and women) in tights. The reality of personal revolution and passive resistance doesn’t fit in those frames, yet Satrapi and Paronnaud prove once again how wrong that assumption is. Chicken With Plums, both on the page and onscreen, illustrates how, in the right hands, passionately inspired hands, the romantic heart can thrive and make its own choices across any divide. (PG-13) Grade: A-
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