Thursday, April 19, 2012

#TFF Review: "Chicken with Plums"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

The opening credits of Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s Chicken with Plums are rendered in a black and white animation style familiar from their previous collaboration, the international art house hit Persepolis. And then the credits end, fading to reveal (gasp) live action. Yes, their new picture—though based, as Persepolis was, on one of Satrapi’s graphic novels—has boldly transitioned into the world of flesh-and-blood actors, while maintaining her distinctive voice and style. What they have come up with is, I think, an even finer film.

The setting is Tehran, 1958. Nasser Ali Khan (Mathieu Amalric, from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Quantum of Solace) is a world-famous violinist, but he is crushed over the destruction of his prized violin; when he cannot find a suitable replacement, he decides to off himself. (Music has no meaning anymore.) And in a startling shock cut, we see his funeral, eight days later. The film then backs up, going through those final days one by one, floating around the memories of his lifetime as he trudges through the end of it.

Satrapi and Paronnaud may have shorn animation (for the most part; aside from the opening credits, there is also a brief, cartoony storybook interlude), but they have worked up a bouncy, giggly visual style, filled with delightfully inventive framing and cockeyed compositions. The look of the picture is something like Persepolis by way of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, filled with theatrical lighting, exaggerated fantasies, and imaginative visualizations; there is a story to tell, but there is always time for entertaining footnotes and tangential side-trips.

This is somber stuff, though, and the film impressively pulls the pivots from whimsy to solemnity without much bumpiness. As they fold in the supporting characters and supplementary stories, a sense of melancholy begins to drizzle over the light film, one that would certainly seem unavoidable, considering that little flash-forward to the graveyard. (Speaking of which: the witty reveal of the tale’s narrator gets a hearty, deserved laugh.)

Scattered moments here and there don’t play (the projected life of his son as an American Midwesterner doesn’t work at all, and that’s a critique lobbed less out of misplaced jingoism than sheer befuddlement), but they pass quickly, and don’t derail the progression towards the uncommonly rich closing sections. There’s real sorrow pulsing through the conclusion, but delayed clarification as well; Khan seems so endlessly cruel to his poor wife (played by the wonderful Maria de Medeiros, whom we should have seen more of Stateside post-Pulp Fiction), and yet the untold stories and buried heartbreak assemble themselves magically at the film’s conclusion, in which we see a previous scene a second time, but with a full understanding of its subtext this time around. With that comprehension in place, the final moments are haunting, powerful, and elegiac. Chicken with Plums is a picture that sneaks up on you; you’re so busy marveling at the exuberant style that you may not notice how swoony and enchanting this charming little movie has become.

"Chicken with Plums" premieres Sunday at the Tribeca Film Festival.

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