Magical Gallows Humour in Tehran

Expectations have been enormous for the follow-up to Persepolis. Would it be a new masterwork full of rebellion and subversion? Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud have instead taken a completely different trajectory with their new film "Chicken with plums." The result is a wonderful, surreal melodrama. By Susan Vahabzadeh

By Susan Vahabzadeh

One thing has to be made clear from the start – food is a big deal for your average Persian. If you can't shake someone out of a gloomy mood with their favourite dish, it can only mean that they are desperately unhappy. Nasser Ali Khan (Mathieu Amalric), the mournful hero of the new film by Marjane Satrapi, the creator of "Persepolis" (once again in collaboration with Vincent Paronnaud), sees no meaning in life after the loss of his violin.

At first, he attempts to find a comparable instrument as a replacement, but when he does not succeed in his quest, his reaction appears quite drastic. He decides to die. That is the opening premise of "Chicken with Plums," and the rest of the film is an exploration of misfortune and melancholy, as well as a fabulous explanation of why some people simply have had enough of life.

Angels of death and a good dose of black humour

"Chicken with Plums" takes us on a journey to Tehran during the era of the Shah. The film actually has the look and feel of the cinema of that time. It is as if Douglas Sirk filmed a melodrama in Persian, yet, with a surreal touch and featuring mysterious antique dealers, angels of death, and a good dose of black humour.

​​There is even a brief excursion into the future with a glimpse of what awaits Nasser's children. His daughter becomes a chain-smoking scoundrel and his son is stranded in provincial America. What we see from these lives in exile and how they both fade into the culture into which they have become entrapped would in itself be material enough for a full-length feature. In all likelihood, a comedy.

Yet, Satrapi wants to savour the sense of misery. She combines diverse thematic elements – emotional, societal, political, and the hopes and dreams of 1950s Iran, which contrast sharply with the sense of confinement and bourgeois mentality associated with Europe in the same post-war era.

A wild and original tapestry

Marjane Satrapi can't boast of a violinist among her relatives – while Nasser Ali Khan is a violinist and a renowned one at that – but she still did not have to stray too far from her own biography. She helps herself to her family's anecdotal treasure house and has spun together the memories into a wild and original tapestry.

The drama of Nasser's life is rolled out bit by bit and the viewer sees how he has only succeeded in making a failure of himself. We see him trounced by his brother and bossed about by his mother. And then there is Irâne, the great love of his life, played Golshifteh Farahani, one of the few Iranians to star in the film, who he failed to marry.

Of course, this is the woman who he could never forget, the source of all happiness and all evil. We are all the same when it comes to love, says Marjane Satrapi. If we have money, we can even alter death, but not love.

A plethora of emotional failures

"Savouring the sense of misery": Iranian-born French graphic novelist, illustrator, animated film director, and children's book author Marjane Satrapi

​​Nasser's mother pushed him into marrying the wrong woman, Faranguisse (played by Maria de Medeiros). He finds no pleasure in her company, apart from his favourite dish. It was she, who in a fit of jealousy, broke his violin.

Almost like a collection of slapstick sketches, Nasser contemplates all forms of death, which he finds either disgusting or degrading, until he finally decides to shut himself up in his room and wait eight days until he simply dies. Every day, we follow him on a journey into his past, and every day is an encounter with a different person and a different emotional failure.

Like her autobiographical animation film "Persepolis," Satrapi's "Chicken with Plums" is based on one of her graphic novels. The animation universe with its chimerical wafts of mist has here cleaved its way into live-action cinema. Despite this, there was a certain degree of disappointment at the film's competition premiere in Venice this fall. Many in the audience had expected a more subversive and rebellious line from Marjane Satrapi.

Little leeway for open politicizing

Yet, Satrapi and Paronnaud announced long before they had begun work on their second film together that it would be a very different project from "Persepolis." And, in many respects, this is true, not only because it is not an animated feature, but because it deals with a completely different period in Iran's history and there is less leeway for open politicizing.

However, the manner of narrative with its magical gallows humour and the way reality and the supernatural flow into each other is something that both films have in common. "Chicken with plums" does not pursue a single target but is more a tapestry of fairy tales built upon the interwoven stories from Nasser's life. This labyrinth structure is clearly intended. If one really wants to get to the bottom of the yearning for death, then there is no need to start with simplifications.

Last but not least, "Chicken with plums" is an ode to free will. Nasser's life is a reflection of the dilemma facing those who know they should rebel and fight injustice, but who often resign themselves to achieving very little in this world. And this in itself is hardly an apolitical question.

Susan Vahabzadeh

© Süddeutsche Zeitung/ 2012

POULET AUX PRUNES, F 2011 – Director and screenplay: Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud. Camera: Christophe Beaucarne. With: Mathieu Amalric, Maria de Medeiros, Golshifteh Farahani, Chiara Mastroianni, Isabella Rossellini, Jamel Debbouze. Prokino, 93 minutes.

Translated from the German by John Bergeron editor: Lewis Gropp