It’s vanishingly rare to know the exact moment at which a movie loses the sympathies of its viewer, yet Chicken With Plums, a sophomorically cruel look at the wasted life of an Iranian violinist, promptly and clearly loses its balance. It indulges its misanthropy during an imagined jaunt to the United States, a flash-forward showing a cute young boy growing up to become a revolutionary and ultimately flee to America. There, he lives in a boxy sitcom house with a moronic wife, two sons who practice hip-hop dance (the movie treats this as though they were practicing ritual murder) and a daughter so fat that she doesn’t know she’s nine months pregnant—she goes to the hospital with a stomachache after having eaten a pile of pizzas.
After their masterful treatment of the human capacity for wonder and sympathy in the animated film Persepolis, Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi have returned, but you’ll wish they’d left well enough alone. Chicken With Plums travels back and forward in time from its central plot: a musician having decided to die—leaving his wife a widow and his children orphans—because his violin is broken. The future holds nothing but grimness, even though it’s completely incongruous. (Why would a scholar and revolutionary immediately adopt the most garish trappings of capitalism? Why do these talented directors think a Todd Solondz parody still has bite?) The past holds nothing but lame explications for the protagonist’s inexcusable behavior. And the bizarre thing? The filmmakers think their story is a whimsical stroll, not a journey to the heart of darkness.
The best fiction in any medium often features the sort of protagonist one cannot wholeheartedly support—the antihero—and seeks to understand his or her behavior. Chicken With Plums, though, seeks to excuse. It’s O.K. that he has completely abandoned his family, see, because he’s sad his violin is broken. And why is that violin broken? Well, because he called his wife, the family’s major breadwinner, “a shitty little teacher.” And he said that because he lost his first love, and married his wife out of sheer pique.
To present this behavior as a slice of life is one thing. To dub it over with a saccharine, tedious score, overlay it with animated birds and mystical characters that appear and disappear at will, and then end the film with a sequence explaining that the protagonist was a really wonderful violinist, indicates that either the writers/directors don’t understand their main character’s brutality and the effect it has on the audience, or that they simply don’t care. Any cultural explanation—that midcentury Iran might somehow be different from continental Europe in the 1700s or a space station orbiting the Earth in the year 3000—is elided. All the marvelous specificity of place in Persepolis has been sacrificed to the monolith of individual narcissism that the filmmakers endlessly flatter.
The central performance, at least, is very good. Mathieu Amalric, as Nasser-Ali, the violinist whose talent comes at great expense, nails puppyish love, disillusionment and bitterness; his eyes bug out further, somehow, than they ever have before. (He resembles a soulful Steve Buscemi.) Were this a character study told with fewer fantastical flourishes, this would be an entirely different story. That story would be miserablist—life is not kind to Nasser-Ali—but it would not burnish the legend of a man whose inattentiveness dooms his children and his wife. Ms. Satrapi and Mr. Parronaud seem to think that their flash-forwards have some wicked black humor (see: the cutaway to a fantasy America of obese, pregnant teens, lit in candy colors). All it really is is bleakness elbowing your ribs. By the time Death incarnate comes to giggle away and tell the familiar “appointment in Samarra” story (via a cutesy, hypercolor animated sequence), all hopes that real consequences might exist in the Chicken With Plums universe have vanished.
This review is hardly a moral objection to the actions Nasser-Ali takes in Chicken With Plums, though they are reprehensible. But it is a critique of the manner in which those decisions are presented—as lacking gravity. Nasser-Ali is unforgivably cruel to his wife, who is played almost too well by Maria de Medeiros: the viewer is granted no catharsis, just the explanation that she could never satisfy the mercurial artist’s craving for a lost sweetheart. Fine, but why must we watch her endlessly degrade herself to claim just a modicum of love? And sure, his children were doomed by Nasser-Ali’s negligence even before his death (the one who doesn’t move to America dies young, of a heart attack). But is the lesson learned that if we toss on enough sweet music and a flashback at the end, the future has an unbearable lightness?
Chicken With Plums does have much to recommend it to those viewers who are able to disconnect from the consequence-free universe the directors have constructed. The cinematography is unusually beautiful, depicting Tehran as a sort of idealized land beyond time and place (perhaps accounting for the lack of specificity). Ms. de Medeiros’s portrait of a woman riven by grief for a husband who has not yet even died is fantastic. Yet every rose in this film comes with a poison-tipped thorn. For instance, the beautiful cinematography is used to sporadically indulge every childish notion, like incarnating Nasser-Ali’s dead mother in a puff of cigarette smoke. And Ms. de Medeiros’s portrayal of her character’s low self-esteem makes it easy for the filmmakers, too, to disregard her.
In privileging the story of Nasser-Ali’s brief lost love as the key to his story, and casting every other component as a bagatelle whose existence means nothing, the directors have frustratingly ignored the humanism of Persepolis in favor of the cult of the genius. Music, like Nasser-Ali’s performances, fades on the air as soon as the note is struck: cruelty to people resonates through the generations, and cruelty to characters is preserved on film eternally. These filmmakers have the ratio reversed.
Chicken With Plums
Running Time 93 Minutes
Written and Directed by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi
Starring Mathieu Amalric, Maria de Medeiros, Golshifteh Farahani
* out of ****