The melancholic and whimsical “Chicken with Plums” could be a primer on dreamy, highly stylized cinema.
The live-action film animates Tehran set in 1958, and the characters who inhabit the city through a world of painted backgrounds, hand-tinted effects, theatrical lighting, old-fashioned sets and silent-movie treatments.
Scenes vividly drenched in richly hued blues and thick clouds of smoke from cigarettes and opium pipes emerge from the art director’s tool box, as do storybook and sitcom re-enactments reflecting the filmmakers’ fertile imagination.
The story of a depressed violinist who decides to end his life by foregoing food and remaining in bed, doesn’t quite match the lavish production.
The film was made by co-directors Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, who previously combined their talents for “Persepolis,” a 2007 black-and-white animated memoir based on Iranian-born Satrapi’s graphic novel of the same name.
When we meet Nasser Ali (Mathieu Amalric), he is a renowned violinist stuck in a loveless marriage to Faringuisse (Maria de Madeiros), a schoolteacher and the family of four’s primary breadwinner. With sad, big brown eyes and few words, he seems to have given up any hope for the future after a newly acquired Stradivarius is smashed to the ground by his cruelly rejected wife, turning the violin’s case into a casket.
Distraught, the virtuoso musician sets out to commit suicide – and imagines amusingly inventive ways to do the deed – before concluding his death must be dignified. His life is replayed over the course of eight bedridden days, while his wife fails to coax him from the covers with his favorite food of, yes, chicken with plums, and his revolutionary brother can’t pry him from bed to see a Sophia Loren movie. (He soon fantasizes in a dream of dissolving into her larger-than-life breasts.)
It’s during that time, late in the film, that Nasser Ali’s passionate relationship in his younger years with the beautiful Irane (Golshifteh Farahani), the love of his life and the real source of his melancholy, is sadly revealed.
There are funny vignettes that show what becomes of Nasser Ali’s children (with Chiara Mastroianni playing the daughter) in later years, and an unanticipated, terrifying visit by the black-hooded and horned Azrael, the Angel of Death, who also is the film’s narrator.
Storyline excursions sometimes become one-way detours, and other times unspool in overly predictable ways, but “Chicken with Plums” is still a sumptuous, cinematic banquet owing to Satrapi and Parannaud’s vision, Udo Kramer’s creative production design, the evocative cinematography of Christophe Beaucarne and Stephane Roche’s appropriately excessive score.