Iranian Film at Milwaukee’s French Film Festival
Nasser Ali has decided to die. After rejecting the conventional forms of suicide as messy and undignified, he simply takes to bed, refuses food and waits for the inevitable visit of the angel of death. Nasser was once a great concert violinist but his career has evaporated. His marriage is an unpleasant silence broken by outbursts of bitter anger. His life is gradually deflating like a tire from many small punctures—until a pair of disappointments entirely flattens his will to continue.
In that bare synopsis, Poulet aux prunes (Chicken with Plums) suggests Ingmar Bergman at his most dire. But the French-language film by Iranian expatriate-in-France, Marjane Satrapi, is shot through with dark irony, yet without denying sympathy for the major characters. Although leavened with humor, Chicken with Plums is a tragedy of loveless marriages and the lofty pursuit of art that fails to deliver either happiness or satisfaction.
In Chicken with Plums, Satrapi moves beyond the relatively straightforward autobiography of her best-known film, Persepolis, an animated feature that illustrated her self-imposed French exile from her homeland, which fell to Ruhollah Khomeini when she was just 14. With a more complicated narrative and a richer emotional palette than its predecessor, Chicken with Plums is sometimes reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie in its quirky blend of the hyper-real and the surreal, its characters who inhabit a world that often resembles a montage of moving postcards.
The story is largely set in Tehran, 1958, recreated with deliberate artifice on the soundstage of Berlin’s famed Babelsberg studio. The city is at the threadbare cusp of modernity and tradition; Islamic zealots are nowhere to be seen and a giant poster of Sophia Loren dares passersby from the wall of the Persepolis cinema. The sad eyes of Nasser (Mathieu Amalric) flare easily into anger or even madness when confronted by what he sees as his failed life. He never cared for his wife, who was madly in love with him, but was nudged into marriage by his mother. Frustrated by Nasser’s rejection, she becomes a thorn of constant recrimination in his side. The one he loved returned his feelings, but was forbidden him by her father, who believed a musician could give her no future. “You don’t remember me?” he asks a woman who might be her in a chance encounter. “To tell the truth, not at all,” she replies coldly. It was the beginning of Nasser’s end.
One other heartbreak prompted his death wish. His brother, a Communist and a serious-minded fool, triggers it by sending him to a shop to buy a Stradivarius. It’s a dark place of wonder filled with ouds and carpets and saffron, with a whiff of opium in the air and a trickster shopkeeper who gladly relieves the musician of his savings in exchange for a mysterious package. Nasser opens it upon returning home to discover a broken old fiddle—a mocking symbol of his life.
Chicken with Plums is an agile juxtaposition of styles. Animation shows stories from Nasser’s childhood and fables from the angel of death; there are wordless scenes told through yearning eyes that could have come from a great silent film; German Expressionism envelopes a flashback to Nasser’s unhappy grade school, which resembles a set from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; the realism is infused with magic. But the film’s visual mastery reveals an emotionally complex web of unfulfillment, a melancholy that resonates beyond the surface theme of loveless marriage. Nasser is both tragic and nasty, touching in his love for his daughter and comically pretentious as he solemnly imparts to his children a morsel of deathbed wisdom. “It is through art that we understand life,” he informs them. They giggle in response and little wonder. Nasser Ali has understood very little.
Chicken with Plums screens at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 19 at the UW-Milwaukee Union Cinema as part of the Festival of Films in French. Admission is free.