Iranian expat author/artist Marjane Satrapi had a breakthrough hit with “Persepolis,” her graphic novel about growing up in revolutionary Iran, and she teamed up with director Vincent Paronnaud to bring her story to the big screen in 2007. It worked fantastically well, fully retaining the unique black-and-white illustrated vibe of the books, in an age where most filmmakers seem to think every comic book/graphic novel is better realized using actors.
Yet it was easy to think she might be a one-hit wonder, like Art Spiegelman was with “Maus.” “Persepolis” was so deeply personal and rooted in her own experience, that you wondered what she could possibly do for a followup. The answer: dig deeper into her family’s history. “Poulet aux Prunes” (“Chicken and Plums” in English and its equivalent in Japanese, though stewed chicken with prunes — delicious in a tajine — would be more accurate) saw Satrapi telling a story that was half fable, half rooted in the life of her great uncle, a noted musician in 1950s Iran.
Satrapi and Paronnaud continue their collaboration by bringing “Poulet aux Prunes” to the screen, only this time they’ve mostly bypassed animation in favor of live action. I’m not sure that’s an improvement, but it’s done with flair, featuring meticulous art direction that would make even Wes Anderson green with envy. Couples stand amid a hazily-remembered hence hand-drawn panorama of Tehran, Federico Fellini-esque fantasy sequences abound and the Angel of Death appears in a delirium dream that features Satrapi’s trademark comic-book style. With much of the tale told in flashback, each period, each segment of memory gets its own specific look.
The filmmakers lovingly re-create the Iran of 1958, with its dusty opium-den curio shops, and Western-Persian cultural fusion. Mathieu Amalric plays Nasser Ali, a sad-eyed violinist who is trying to find a replacement for his broken instrument. When he can’t find a suitable one, he resolves to die by getting into bed and not coming out again, much to the consternation of his long-suffering wife Faringuisse (Maria de Medeiros) and kids. This seems an extreme decision at first, but through a series of flashbacks the film shows us the reason for Nasser Ali’s suicide: an irreparably broken heart.
A man on the slow road to death seems like a bummer that can’t be beat, but as Satrapi has noted, death is used in the film to talk about life, to reflect on its joys and regrets. There are a lot of smiles as well — even a fart joke — and the film is clearly aiming for that “Amelie” sweet spot of cute but eccentric humor, but while Satrapi and Paronnaud manage lots of silly digressions and sudden cuts, they lack Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s sharp sense of composing visual jokes.
Fans of “The Artist” will probably find much to like in “Poulet aux Prunes” as well, since it shares its old-fashioned romanticism, while Amalric’s performance is so full of arched eyebrows and pulled faces that it could have been silent and still communicated everything; a scene in a clock maker’s shop could easily have been out of a Charlie Chaplin or Jacques Tati film.
There are moments in the film that will floor you with their sheer inventiveness and beauty, like when the camera tracks a single snowflake descending from the clouds onto a child’s tongue; or zany humor — Nasser Ali imagining all the different ways to kill himself and finding them all rather messy. But the cloying air of magic realism becomes a bit thick after a while. How many sudden coincidences, twinkly-eyed gurus who catch the wind in their hands or strange bedraggled beggars do you need to tart up what is essentially a very solid story about lost love, arranged marriage and a missed path in life?
Some critics have glimpsed a buried political meaning in the fact that Nasser Ali’s great lost love is named Irane (played by dark-eyed beauty Golshifteh Farahani, one of the few Iranians in the cast), and that he must live his life apart from her, much as Satrapi — like so many Iranian artists — has had to choose exile. Yet Satrapi has expressed disillusion with politics, other than a desire to depict an earlier, freer Iran that valued the Persian heritage of poetry, philosophy and music. This Iran exists even today, behind what Satrapi calls the “veil, beard, nuclear weapon” image imposed by the country’s dictatorship as much as the international media. Beauty is its own reward, insists Satrapi, and “Poulet aux Prunes” is a testament to that.