Chicken With Plums
This year has seen a number of filmmakers switch from animation to live-action with great success, but "Chicken With Plums" suggests that autuers Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi should literally head back to the drawing board.
Just in the past 12 months, Brad Bird brought his sense for visual comedy and aesthetic exuberance to "Mission Impossible 4," Andrew Stanton brought his straight-faced storytelling skills (and total lack of irony) to "John Carter," and the team of Phillip Lord/Chris Miller shined brightest with their candy-colored adaptation of "21 Jump Street." But the best thing I can say about Paronnaud and Satrapi's switch to live action is that it made me want to go watch their animated work.
Nasser’s stuck in a loveless marriage with his domineering wife; her destruction of his prized violin after another one of their innumerable dinner table arguments sends him over the edge. Shunning suicide or any other messy form of death but no longer feeling any desire for life, he simply decides to wait in bed for the arrival of the reaper himself. What follows over these inter-titled days is a combination of expressionist flashbacks - to his true love Iran (subtext alert!), to her father breaking up their relationship, to her marriage with an army captain - intensive dreams, and surreal happenings with death himself.
Coming off their hit debut "Persepolis," the two filmmakers have crafted another allegorical tale of national allegiance, lost love, and (figuratively) lost identity. Once we reach Nasser’s last week of life, it displays all the surrealism and visual poetry of that assured debut. Unfortunately, this amped-up fable also has none of the humanism or gently engrossing storytelling that made that autobiographical tale tick; and ends up giving off feelings of pretentiousness that said first film never suggested.
What you’ll notice is that even Nasser’s reality is exaggerated to the point of extremity - you may even go so far as to say every second of the film feels animated. You sit wondering what the live-action switch is even bringing to the table for the directors (besides the obvious answer of a much calmer production.) Some of these images are striking, and a few of them nothing less than beautiful - including a few shots with complex color design that brings no one less than Douglas Sirk to mind. But when even the film’s most draining moments feel totally artificial, it’s impossible to become emotionally involved.
You watched everything with detached admiration instead of with connection and relation. Perhaps it’s that the films political motivations bubble too close to the surface without ever becoming part of the text, as in the name of Nasser’s long separated love or in the notable inclusion of villainous military men. Perhaps it’s that the film’s animated interludes feel so smooth and natural that it sets your brain off asking why the whole film couldn’t look that way. Perhaps it’s simply that Paronnaud and Satrapi are trying to juggle too many themes, too many visual aesthetics, and too many emotions at once. But at the end of the day, it feels more opaque than revelatory.
That’s not to say there isn’t a whole lot to like in "Chicken With Plums." Simply as a tale about the necessity of art to human souls, it has value. Both the political subtext and the evocation of time and place (Persia in the 1950s, to be exact) are rare in their specificity. And as mentioned, even if they don’t string together as poetry, many of these images - even when viewed ’in a vaccum,’ so to speak - are entirely overwhelming. But in a world so animated, nothing ends up feeling real, even feelings themselves. With that, it’s a much more empty experience than "Persepolis," much less emotionally involving than it wants to be. "Chicken With Plums" is a beautiful film, but it’s a meal you’d be hard-pressed to remember hours after the fact.