As co-directors Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's live-action follow-up to their animated smash Persepolis, Chicken With Plums unfolds in Iran during the mid-'50s. Mathieu Amalric stars as Nasser-Ali, a musical genius who holds court as one of the most sought-after violinists in the world. As the story opens, some unspecified sequence of events has driven him into an emotional crisis, and for reasons that also initially go unexplained, his cherished Stradivarius lies broken and irreparable in its case. With mounting desperation, this bug-eyed, manically intense fellow now teeters on the edge of a nervous breakdown. He attempts to find a suitable replacement for the instrument -- even purchasing a centuries-old violin that once belonged to Mozart -- but soon discovers that he's now unable to perform on a satisfactory technical level and can no longer create music with the degree of emotional purity that he seeks. As music is Nasser's heart and soul, he decides to commit suicide -- not rapidly, with a gunshot or suffocation, but gradually, by climbing into bed for a week and refusing to function. His doting wife (Maria de Medeiros) and their young son and daughter grow unduly concerned about his irreversible downward spiral. As he wastes away, the story then flashes back to fill in the gaps of his tragic history, which involves a lost love.
The movie is set up, then, in an unusual way, as the backstory only incrementally attains focus before our eyes. It might seem intriguing that Satrapi and Paronnaud rearranged the pieces of Nasser's past in a nonlinear manner, but our initial impression while watching the movie -- that the unconventional scene structure somehow makes the film deeper -- is sophistic. In other pictures with achronological narratives, such as Hiroshima Mon Amour or Once Upon a Time in America, the structure serves a thematic purpose, such as underscoring the creators' reflections on memory and guilt. But here, there is no such ideological correlative: the sequence order is merely a clever ploy, a narrative hook to keep us guessing right up until the conclusion. Ask yourself what it would detract from the picture if Satrapi and Paronnaud told the tale chronologically, and you'll come up empty-handed. The nontraditional story structure does serve one disheartening critical function: It obscures the fact that this is an appallingly simple tale of tragic love and loss -- a melodramatic arc that we've seen before in a thousand other movies. A central magic-realist trope involving the violin music also seems a bit derivative -- it recalls similar developments in Laura Esquivel's novel Like Water for Chocolate.
On an equally dispiriting note, Chicken feels ethnically generic as well. The basic story is a folktale at heart -- stylistic elements aside, the movie that it most recalls is Gabriel Axel's Babette's Feast. But the very essence of the folktale form is its tie to a specific culture. When Chicken opens, the stage appears to be set for an indigenous yarn á la Babette, but that doesn't happen -- these Iranian events could be relocated without complication to Greece, France, the U.S., Australia, or any other country. One of the most immense pleasures of Persepolis was the fact that it seemed uniquely Persian -- there were transpirations that wouldn't have worked against any other national backdrop. The same can't be said of this film.
The movie falls short of Persepolis in another way: That earlier picture was politically profound. It commented, incisively and acutely, on the psychosocial effects of extremist religious and governmental oppression, and on Iranian citizens' shared longings for the freedoms afforded to Americans when faced with the despotism of the ayatollah. Here, we do get political commentary, but it's imbecilic -- and pretty much limited to one inane sequence. Satrapi and Paronnaud set up a comedic episode that depicts Nasser-Ali's son growing up and moving to America. Yet here, the filmmakers paint the U.S. as an idiotic sitcom in which cheese-brained parents raise feebleminded, loser children, such as a daughter too stupid and too morbidly obese to realize that she's pregnant. Not only is this unfunny, it leaves a bilious aftertaste in one's mouth -- and it's disgustingly unfair to type U.S. citizens as refugees from the Jerry Springer Show. If any American director decided to make an equivalent commentary about Iran, using grotesque Persian stereotypes and the same snide, sardonic tone, it's doubtful that the movie would even get past the conceptual stage -- and if it did, there would be a major outcry.
To be certain, not everything in Chicken is a loss. Despite its excessive simplicity, the tragic love story that leads to Nasser-Ali's self-destruction isn't inept in any major way, just not particularly deep -- and it does have an underlying emotional pull that generates a satisfactory warmth in the denouement. The movie also benefits from a dazzling visual schema. The filmmakers display tremendous inventiveness and resourcefulness, courtesy of a huge bag of aesthetic tricks: CG cityscapes; dozens of different forms of animation; expressionistic lighting; and gorgeous animated and live-action fantasy sequences involving Azraël, the Angel of Death. All of this grabs our attention with its flash and bang -- how could it not? Yet these inclusions add little or nothing to the movie's dramatic pull. Ironically, the story itself grows most effective in its least flashy sequences -- those all-too-rare scenes that merely depict, with great loving care and a venerable absence of panache, the simplistic and beautiful daily life of Iran in the 1950s. These instances attain and project a kind of cultural purity all too conspicuously absent from the rest of the movie.
This could have been a great picture if Satrapi and Paronnaud had toned down their narrative self-indulgences, worked in more intelligent sociocultural commentary, removed the anti-American bile, and deepened the thematic undercurrents of the tale itself. As Persepolis demonstrated, all of these abilities lie within the filmmakers' shared grasp, which makes this movie that much more disappointing and distressing. On a scene-by-scene basis, much of Chicken With Plums delivers satisfactorily, but it adds up to much less than the sum of its many parts.