Among the many talents of the graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi is a skill for moving fluidly between forms and genres. A few years ago Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud co-directed a film version of her most famous book Persepolis, an autobiographical story about her childhood in Iran under the shadow of the Islamic Revolution and her eventual return as a young woman. I liked the film but I had one reservation: it was too often a straightforward cinematic presentation of the drawings Satrapi had already done for the book. Though there were a few well-chosen moments of added animation – such as an Expressionist scene where little Marjane’s features melt until she resembles the screamer in the famous Munch painting – the overall similarity to the source text made the viewing experience repetitive for a reader who was already very familiar with the book.
I was much happier with Satrapi’s decision to turn her book Chicken with Plums (original title Poulet aux Prunes) into a (mostly) live-action film. The movie, shown recently at Cinefan, is beautifully shot, cleverly structured and anchored by an extraordinary performance by French actor Mathieu Amalric as a depressed, middle-aged violinist named Nasser-Ali – based on a distant relative of Satrapi in 1950s Tehran – who decides to end his life. That doesn’t sound like an upbeat story, and indeed the film makes a point of confirming early on that Nasser-Ali does die: a shot of his funeral is followed by a series of flashbacks that take us through his final eight days, as well as flashbacks within flashbacks that recount various earlier episodes, including a tragic love affair that aided his artistic growth but also cast a black shadow over his personal life. (“The love you have lost,” says his music teacher, not channelling Rockstar, “will be in each note you play.”)
What is most notable though is the film’s consistently whimsical tone and its many quaint asides such as the “flash-forwards” to the future lives of Nasser-Ali’s children, or a scene where he is visited by Azrael, the talkative Angel of Death. Chicken with Plums is a demonstration of how a movie can begin on a farcical, even buffoonish, note but gradually reveal its secrets so that – without the viewer even realising it – a deeply moving portrait of an individual and his society emerges. And yet, the light-hearted tone is never forsaken. Certain characters – such as Nasser-Ali’s apparently sullen, shrewish wife – are presented unflatteringly at first, and only later shown in a more poignant light. There are jokes about death, as in the sequence where he mulls and rejects various suicide options (being discovered with a plastic bag over one’s head would not be very dignified, would it?).
This tenor sometimes tilts into over-the-top slapstick: one scene has vignettes from the crass American life destined for Nasser-Ali’s son Cyrus, who will marry his cheerleader girlfriend after he accidentally gets her pregnant, settle into hick domesticity and look goggle-eyed when he learns that his own (pea-brained but elephant-sized) daughter has a bun in the oven. This is broad caricature, but under it is the suggestion that Cyrus’s life may not have taken this turn if his father had been a happier, more fulfilled man. A personal tragedy involving two people echoes across time and space, affecting the lives of generations and spawning its own mini-histories.
This can be described as a bittersweet film, though I feel like that word is a little insubstantial (it has a patronising edge to it, as if saying “This isn’t really serious, but it’ll do until something deeper comes along”). Chicken with Plums allows a viewer to laugh at certain aspects of situations that are essentially tragic; at times it might even seem that we are laughing at Nasser-Ali himself. But the mirth is less specific, more inclusive than that – it recognises how the profound and the ridiculous constantly coexist in human lives. There is a running gag about Nasser-Ali being interrupted by an inappropriate sound whenever he is about to say something meaningful (and one hilarious scene imagines the philosopher Socrates’s last words being similarly interrupted) – these scenes are reminders of the many banana peels strewn on life's roads, waiting to make us look silly just as we are constructing grand narratives or making life-changing decisions. But that doesn’t make us pathetic, only human, and Satrapi's film is gently, wonderfully cognisant of this.
[Did a version of this for my Business Standard column. An old post on Marjane Satrapi's Embroideries is here]