Review: Chicken with Plums (Paronnaud & Satrapi, 2011)

Still from the movie Chicken with Plums

Still from the movie Chicken with Plums

I am taking a break from Oscar reviewing to watch the four movies I had already borrowed from the library before embarking on this project. The first of these is Chicken with Plums, a dramatic feature by the duo who brought us Persepolis a few years ago, Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud. Like Persepolis (which, sadly, I still haven’t seen), Chicken with Plums is based off of Satrapi’s graphic novel of the same title. Both the movie and the novel depict the story of Satrapi’s great-uncle Nasser Ali Khan, one of Iran’s most famous tar players (though in the movie they make him a violinist). Unlike Persepolis, however, this film is not an animated feature but “live action.” Nevertheless, the picture often gives the feeling of animation, as it is chock full of scenes of whimsical dreaminess and elaborate fantasy, evoking the cinematic traditions of bygone eras à la Martin Scorsese‘s Hugo but more French and less thematically bound (but not to lesser effect).

The movie’s fancifulness–which extends beyond the cinematography to the story-telling and the characters themselves–can be so captivating that it distracts from the fact that the story-line is a little thin. What I mean to say is that the plot plays out exactly as one might expect it to play out, once the main parameters have been established. It’s a classical love tragedy, swooning with romance and emotion. I don’t doubt that this is all intentional, but still I declare it’s not as interesting as it could be. The one little tidbit that gave the film more dimension for me was that the name of the movie’s heroine–well, that’s not quite accurate; let’s call her the hero’s love instead–is Irâne. If this is a not-so-subtle hint that Nasser Ali’s longing could symbolize…well, I don’t need to say it, but I like that coy little possibility, and also that the filmmakers don’t make it explicit.

Though the parts don’t require much stretch from the cast, the acting is nonetheless delightful. I especially enjoyed seeing Golshifteh Farahani in her small role as Irâne. I loved her in the 2009 About Elly, an Iranian film (see note below) I caught at the San Francisco International Film Festival. (She also played DiCaprio‘s love interest in the quite skippable Body of Lies.)

All in all, I’d say go watch this movie and enjoy it for its visual poetry. On that score, Chicken with Plums is sure to delight.

Note on Iranian film: I haven’t seen many movies coming out of Iran, but what I have seen leads me to believe that the country has a very sophisticated cinema and movie-going audience. Both About Elly and A Separation (both by director Asghar Farhadi) are two of my favorite movies in recent years, and they have nothing (overtly) to do with politics or religious freedom or the oppression of women or all the other topics Westerners usually associate with that nation. These movies depict Iran as a culturally rich, complex country in a way that defies (without even trying to) the flattened image portrayed in the U.S. What I mean to say is that these films are not self-conscious the way that American movies are not self-conscious (because they don’t need to be). They are made for Iranians and not to get foreigners to think or feel anything about their country. So, please let me know if you have other recommendations for Iranian movies to watch. I’m hungry for more.