Nasser-Ali Khan is a pathetic human being. The talented violinist, crushed by the destruction of his beloved instrument, wracked with professional regret, disconnected from his wife and children, has decided to kill himself. And so we watch him lie in bed, haunted by his memories as a narrator takes us through his past and his children's future in this whimsical drama from "Persepolis" writer Marjane Satrapi and her collaborator on its film adaptation, Vincent Paronnaud.
The French-language "Chicken With Plums," set in Satrapi's native Iran, is a beautiful bummer, a deeply-felt and sumptuous movie that by the end I wanted to flee with as much speed as my feet could muster, Nasser-Ali's misery and the misery of his family suffocating inside of a gilded box constructed entirely out of whimsy.
The problem isn't that Nasser-Ali ("Quantum of Solace's" Mathieu Amalric) is a sad sack: there's something poignant about his thwarted ambitions and failure to connect with the family he never wanted. It's simply that there's so much of it in an unceasing state. Satrapi (working from her 2006 graphic novel with co-writer Paronnaud) give him Faringuisse (Maria de Medeiros, "Pulp Fiction") a wife whom he loathes, a grade school-aged son he believes to be a cretin, and a perceptive daughter who will grow into a cultivated sort of adult misery because of her father's death.
"Unceasing" isn't a fair word here. There are breaks in Nasser-Ali's grim, week-long effort to bring his life to a dramatic, artistic end, from the opium-slinging violin dealer (it's always nice to see Jamel Debbouze pop up in something, here with two roles) to the shamanic violin instructor who tells Nassar-Ali one true lesson about the connection between art and tragedy, as we gradually learn that the true love story here isn't the broken one between our protagonist and Faringuisse.
"Chicken With Plums" is also (and I can't say this enough) a gorgeous movie, from the matte-painted backgrounds of 1958 Tehran, to the Nassar-Ali's mountaintop perch, to the sitcom-style tableau of once character's unfortunate future (although this section feels like a needless cheapshot and a broad commentary on the U.S. that goes on for too long). When the Angel of Death shows up to guide Nassar-Ali through an animated tale of the inevitability of the end, you know you're watching something special, even if the emotions of the whole thing are noxious.
Nassar-Ali's death and dying are simply repellant to me. His reasons (revealed through flashbacks late in the film) are poignant and completely besides the point. His selfishness, his cowardice doom his family and doom him, and no lost love can really redeem that. In fact, I'd argue that Nassar-Ali never learned to love, only to feel deeply and obsessively before snuffing out his own light because he believed that (save one person) nothing returned his level of feeling.
It's strange to find so much to like about a movie while not wanting to spend any more time with it. Amalric, with his big, soulful sad eyes and drooping mustache, make Nassar-Ali feel like a real person, burdened with all of these big feelings, but as written, he's more of a soulful ogre, redeemed only by the actor's excellent performance. "Chicken With Plums" is like watching all of these meticulously assembled ingredients come together for an unappetizing meal--one that looks great, but never passes the smell test.
Sony's disc includes a 15-minute Tribeca Q&A with Satrapi and Paronnaud, where, among other things the filmmakers are asked about the creation of the film's characters, choosing not to shoot in Farsi, and Satrapi's own relationship with fairy tales and myth. It's an enlightening chat, although it takes the French-speaking Paronnaud--whose responses are translated into English by Satrapi--a bit to jump into the conversation.
The meatier feature, though, is the commentary featuring the two where they talk about process and inspiration in the making of "Chicken With Plums." Satrapi is such a lively speaker that even when I didn't connect with the film, I enjoyed listening to her talk about it.
"Chicken With Plums" is available now from Sony Classics on DVD and VOD.