Scene from "Chicken with Plumbs" (source: PR)
Marjane Satrapi's "Chicken with Plums"

Magical Gallows Humour in Tehran

Expectations have been enormous for the follow-up to Persepolis. Would it be a new masterwork full of rebellion and subversion? Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud have instead taken a completely different trajectory with their new film "Chicken with plums." The result is a wonderful, surreal melodrama. By Susan Vahabzadeh

One thing has to be made clear from the start – food is a big deal for your average Persian. If you can't shake someone out of a gloomy mood with their favourite dish, it can only mean that they are desperately unhappy. Nasser Ali Khan (Mathieu Amalric), the mournful hero of the new film by Marjane Satrapi, the creator of "Persepolis" (once again in collaboration with Vincent Paronnaud), sees no meaning in life after the loss of his violin.

At first, he attempts to find a comparable instrument as a replacement, but when he does not succeed in his quest, his reaction appears quite drastic. He decides to die. That is the opening premise of "Chicken with Plums," and the rest of the film is an exploration of misfortune and melancholy, as well as a fabulous explanation of why some people simply have had enough of life.

Angels of death and a good dose of black humour

"Chicken with Plums" takes us on a journey to Tehran during the era of the Shah. The film actually has the look and feel of the cinema of that time. It is as if Douglas Sirk filmed a melodrama in Persian, yet, with a surreal touch and featuring mysterious antique dealers, angels of death, and a good dose of black humour.

​​Nasser's mother pushed him into marrying the wrong woman, Faranguisse (played by Maria de Medeiros). He finds no pleasure in her company, apart from his favourite dish. It was she, who in a fit of jealousy, broke his violin.

Almost like a collection of slapstick sketches, Nasser contemplates all forms of death, which he finds either disgusting or degrading, until he finally decides to shut himself up in his room and wait eight days until he simply dies. Every day, we follow him on a journey into his past, and every day is an encounter with a different person and a different emotional failure.

Like her autobiographical animation film "Persepolis," Satrapi's "Chicken with Plums" is based on one of her graphic novels. The animation universe with its chimerical wafts of mist has here cleaved its way into live-action cinema. Despite this, there was a certain degree of disappointment at the film's competition premiere in Venice this fall. Many in the audience had expected a more subversive and rebellious line from Marjane Satrapi.

Little leeway for open politicizing

Yet, Satrapi and Paronnaud announced long before they had begun work on their second film together that it would be a very different project from "Persepolis." And, in many respects, this is true, not only because it is not an animated feature, but because it deals with a completely different period in Iran's history and there is less leeway for open politicizing.

However, the manner of narrative with its magical gallows humour and the way reality and the supernatural flow into each other is something that both films have in common. "Chicken with plums" does not pursue a single target but is more a tapestry of fairy tales built upon the interwoven stories from Nasser's life. This labyrinth structure is clearly intended. If one really wants to get to the bottom of the yearning for death, then there is no need to start with simplifications.

Last but not least, "Chicken with plums" is an ode to free will. Nasser's life is a reflection of the dilemma facing those who know they should rebel and fight injustice, but who often resign themselves to achieving very little in this world. And this in itself is hardly an apolitical question.

Susan Vahabzadeh

© Süddeutsche Zeitung/Qantara.de 2012

POULET AUX PRUNES, F 2011 – Director and screenplay: Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud. Camera: Christophe Beaucarne. With: Mathieu Amalric, Maria de Medeiros, Golshifteh Farahani, Chiara Mastroianni, Isabella Rossellini, Jamel Debbouze. Prokino, 93 minutes.

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

Qantara.de editor: Lewis Gropp

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