Lacking Conviction, by David Bax
Chicken with Plums is the new film from Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, the team behind 2007’s excellent Persepolis. What made Persepolis outstanding was its ability to accent some very heavy narrative and thematic elements with flights of dark, cartoonish whimsy without ever losing grip of its tone. Chicken with Plums, which is the first live-action attempt from the duo, aims to recapture that approach. Yet the lack of real, emotional grounding in the film’s story makes the outlandish, comic sequences only seem crass.
Mathieu Amalric plays Nasser-Ali Khan, a talented and well-known violinist. When we meet him, he is in despair because his instrument has been irreparably broken. He briefly searches for a replacement but, unable to procure one to his satisfaction, he decides to kill himself. Then, when he can’t settle on a method of suicide, he resigns himself to simply lying in bed until death comes for him. During these last days, he reflects on his life, which we see in flashbacks.
As mentioned, Chicken with Plums breaks from Persepolis in that the latter was animated and this is not. However, it’s not the transition that has hurt the film. It’s the lack of conviction. Watching Chicken with Plums is like having a story told to you but the storyteller doesn’t believe his tale is any good and he tries to compensate with lots of grand, conspicuous gesturing. It’s okay that Paronnaud and Satrapi are telling a story that is less deep than its predecessor. The problem is that it’s so much less deeply felt.
More than likely, this film will draw a number of comparisons to Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie. While that film suffers from a sometimes gratingly meticulous precociousness, it does possess an authentic sense of wonder at life and the world that is its arena. Chicken with Plums tries to capture that same sense of “isn’t life so bizarre it’s sometimes magical,” but those elements are so baldly strained as to make the experience of them nothing more than unpleasant.
Perhaps the biggest failure on this film’s part is the characterization of its lead. Everything is sold and unfolded to us as if the protagonist were some kind of tragic hero; if only things had gone slightly differently early in his life, everything would be better now. But the truth is that the only reason things have gone poorly for this man is because he has repeatedly, continuously behaved like a petulant, self-centered, juvenile asshole. It’s true that he sadly compromised and married a woman he didn’t love but that doesn’t give him an excuse to treat her so coldly. The film seems to think it does, though.
Perhaps with the sound shut off and the movie playing on a TV in the background of a party, the film’s occasionally gonzo visual sense will come across as attractive to the eye. Taken as a whole, however, Chicken with Plums is mean-spirited and unrelentingly ugly.