“Chicken with Plums” is the most creative, amusing, touching and above all beautiful movie I’ve ever seen on the subject of someone’s gradual suicide. It concerns a famous Iranian violinist who—after his favorite violin is broken—decides he can’t live so he lies in his bed and waits for death to come to him. While he does that he reflects on moments of his life. Though, that’s probably the most basic recount of the plot. “Chicken with Plums” is a movie that relies more on character and moods than it does on plot points.
Here’s a movie that’s completely authentic but at the same time has an imaginative and playful visual style. It’s directed by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, the same duo behind the 2007 film “Persepolis.” (Both “Chicken with Plums” and “Persepolis” are based on graphic novels by Satrapi). While “Persepolis” was solely an animated film, “Chicken with Plums” is half. There are real actors and real sets and real props but often times the background—like in an overhead shot of the town of Tehran, where the film takes place-- is either animated or a toy model.
It gives the movie an intentionally artificial otherworldly quality. It’s almost like each character is walking around in a painting. Also, the composition of each scene is fairly neat. Like in “Moonrise Kingdom” no object or little detail is out of place and the cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne emphasizes particular shades of colors, making each scene stand out visually.
The style is used for both the goofy and extravagant nature of the film as well as for dramatic effect. It serves a purpose, instead of just being stylistic for the sake of being stylistic.
The violinist is Nasser-Ali Khan (Mathieu Amalric), who’s married with two kids. After his wife breaks his violin, it breaks his heart. He even travels a far distance to get a replacement violin, but it’s not good enough. So after figuring out the most painless method of death he decides to lie in bed and wait it out for eight days. Now you probably have two questions: Did I just give away a major plot point? And what a selfish bastard, it’s just a stupid violin, right? The answer to the first question is simply no. The movie isn’t about the death itself but how it gets to that point. And as far as the second question is concerned, the violin stands for much more.
Yes, Nasser may be a little selfish. Any man who would kill himself, leaving a wife and two kids behind is definitely a little selfish and that may be flaw (a flaw in the story, not in the filmmaking) of Nasser’s character but at the same time you learn about him and his past and begin to sympathize with him. We find out that he was sort of forced into the marriage by his domineering and hard to impress mother Parvine (Isabella Rossellini). When he was a young adult he went to train with a prestigious violin teacher who told him he had the technique but not the music. And he met the woman of his dreams at one point but because of her bossy father they could no longer be together, which still eats him up to this day.
The film is narrated by an outside, all knowing narrator in the style of French New Wave film, who takes us backwards and forwards through the time of Nasser, as well as all the other characters, giving them depth. He even knows how the lives of Nasser’s two young children will turn out (which is not very good). The movie is mostly tragedy and drama but it also has tongue-in-cheek/ screwball undertones—the scene where he imagines which way to kill himself is played for humor—as well as a touch of whimsy and magic. “Chicken with Plums” may be sad but it won’t make you feel miserable. It understands that you can sometimes find humor and beauty from drama.
The film can be a little uneven; some of the tangents and flashbacks go on longer than necessary but I was still deeply moved by “Chicken with Plums.” The film has very rich visual panache but then it has a genuine story and characters to back it up. All of the actors do well with their roles though Amalric is easily the best. A majority of his performance is in his face. A face that reads, compassion, humor and sadness. The three things that are felt the most in this wonderful, beautiful movie.