Despite sharing a similarly whimsical spirit with their first feature, “Persepolis,” “Chicken with Plums” is not the follow-up that one would expect from filmmakers Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, though perhaps it signals that they will build their entire career around unexpected marriages of subject and aesthetic. “Persepolis” used simple, hand-drawn, black-and-white animation to bring to life an autobiographical story that was full of jubilant gusto — a striking juxtaposition. In fact, that film’s style would have been a more likely choice for “Chicken with Plums,” a tragic tale of a man’s death, which they have instead styled with glistening golds and milky whites — desaturated enough to avoid glaring post-modernism, but disarming nonetheless.
The magic of Paronnaud and graphic novelist Satrapi’s implementation of seemingly contrasting content and visuals is that it forces the viewer to abandon any preconceived notions about the material. This was more transparent in “Persepolis,” which dealt with controversial sociopolitical history (the 1979 Iranian Revolution), but it is nonetheless integral to “Chicken with Plums,” because viewers invariably have personal biases about suicide (which is what the film foreshadows, even though the actual ending is not so simple). By visually framing the film as a fantasy instead of a tragedy–albeit a dark one, with Gilliam-esque characteristics–Paronnaud and Satrapi make the viewer treat “Chicken with Plums” as its own story, different from anything of its kind that has come before.
The narrative is indeed unique and human enough to live up to the film’s carefully constructed style. It’s 1958 in Tehran and Nasser-Ali Khan (Mathieu Almaric, borderline unrecognizable behind a thick mustache), a concert musician, is tortured by the fact that his prized violin is broken beyond repair. The consequences are grave: “Since no violin would ever again give him the pleasure of playing, he decided to die,” the narrator informs the audience. What follows is an impassioned account as to why the violin is so important to Nasser-Ali that he cannot live without being able playing it, which naturally revolves around a romance.
Paronnaud and Satrapi’s reliance on non-linear presentation to superficially enhance the third act’s emotional kick may bother viewers who prefer more naturalistic storytelling, but most will find the way that they slowly reveal information about the protagonist’s life to be surprisingly organic. As Nasser-Ali lies in bed for a week, depressed by the realization that death is the only option before him, Paronnaud and Satrapi show the audience extensive glimpses into the character’s past, as if they are flashing before his eyes. This approach does not simply create dramatic tension — it also provides human insight into the way that man views his life as a narrative, which he crafts through memories. Thus, even though the structure of “Chicken with Plums” always feels fabricated, it extracts raw emotions that would not have been expressed otherwise.
If there is an undoing to “Chicken with Plums,” it’s that the movie has a tendency to feel anemic, even for its short 90 minute runtime. Paronnaud and Satrapi rely on a considerable amount of filler, including a magic-realist sequence featuring the Angel of Death which pushes the film too concretely into fantasy territory, compromising its ongoing contrast between style and subject. Perhaps the film would have worked better as a short, provided the filmmakers had been able to preserve its structural complexity in that format. Still, what Paronnaud and Satrapi accomplish in “Chicken with Plums” is more than enough to recommend the film — it’s a dreamlike, bittersweet tragedy that should appeal to the sentimentalist in all but the most cynical of viewers.