Friday, September 14, 2012

Review: "Chicken with Plums"

Director(s): Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Parronaud
Runtime: 93 minutes

It takes a different set of skills to successfully execute live action film making and animation. And the transition from one to the other also comes with its own challenges. One need look no further than Pixar alums Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton to see where going from one style to the other can work (the former's Mission Impossible 4) and flounder (the latter's - admittedly very pretty - John Carter). Now what about merging the two together? An even bigger artistic, technical, and logistical uphill climb. You wouldn't know it, however, if you went by the unqualified success that is Chicken with Plums. Written and directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Parronaud, this sophomore effort from the creators of Persepolis (2007) is a small, vibrant, and emotional tale of life, death, love, and desire. 

Set in Tehran but starring an array of actors (all of whom speak in French) from across the globe, Satrapi and Parronaud have seemingly reversed their focus as storytellers. Where Persepolis (a more politically involved work) tracked the growth of a girl in Iran under the Shah, Plums deals with a middle-aged man reflecting on his past as he contemplates his own end. Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) plays Nasser Ali Khan, a highly respected violinist whose instrument has been broken. His quest for a replacement proves fruitless, even after he acquires a Stradivarius. Having lost all zest for life, and deciding that suicide presents too many problems (humorously rendered in fluidly integrated mixes of live action and animation), Khan simply gives up the will to live, and waits in his room for death to come. 

From this point on, the film is divided among Khan's last eight days. Yet rather than turn this narrative device into a creative crutch, Satrapi and Parronaud bring the Khan's days alive to marvelous effect. Shifting among live action, animation, and hybrids of the two, Khan's time spent wasting away is anything but a drag. By turns lively, exciting, odd, somber, and darkly humorous, the co-directors weave a beautifully constructed, constantly-moving journey through their protagonist's dreams, memories, and fantasies. Some are fleeting, like Khan's lustful daydreams of a visit from Sophia Loren, where he finds his head squished in her comically exaggerated cleavage. Others go on longer and incorporate all three styles of filmmaking. This includes the best segment, wherein Khan meets with Azrael, the angel of death. Fittingly, the encounter isn't dour or frightening, but oddly funny, and engaging. Contrary to instinct, the cartoonish elements of the film's sequences actually add to its depth. Think of Khan's encounter with Azrael as the more vivid cousin to the knight's encounter with Death in The Seventh Seal (fittingly, both scenes involve chess). 

And as the narrative moves closer towards Khan's death, Satrapi and Parronaud's narrative tapestry only grows deeper and richer. The animation may bequeath a lighter, fantastical touch, but at the end of the day the writer/directors never lose sight of where their tale is headed. Dropping in on memories of Khan's first love, and his subsequent forced marriage to Faringuisse (Maria de Madeiros) adds nuance to what could have been a surface-only affair. The film's tone and style suggest something broad and manipulative, yet despite the story of lost love and the charming score, Chicken with Plums establishes itself as a rich and engrossing fairy tale. 

Anchoring all of it is Mathieu Amalric, who uses his sensitive, Gallic face (and somewhat bulging eyes) to breathe tremendous life into Khan. His conversations with his wife are expertly handled, suggesting a man who is split between the love for his current wife, and the haunting memory of his first love. Not helping matters is the fact that, despite some deep seated love, Khan and Faringuisse's marriage is severely strained. Though Khan proclaims himself an artist, it's been a long time since he's worked, putting all of financial burden on Faringuisse, who believes he should support the family as the patriarch. Their relationship also plays a key role in Khan's melancholy, yet the script avoids the pitfall of turning Faringuisse into a one-note harpy. The story belongs to Khan, but the film is wise enough to give other characters a fair shake, and never justifies some of Khan's behavior, even as it helps us understand him. 

For all of its fanciful imagery, real, animated, or both, what makes Chicken with Plums the surprisingly moving success that it is comes down to Satrapi and Parronaud's ability to always keep Khan's story front and center. The animation and visuals are often wondrous, with swirling lines and layers popping out like a subtle pop-up yet the directors never indulge just to show off their visual prowess. It may not make quite the mark that Satrapi and Parronaud's debut made, but at the very least it further establishes them as a storytellers gifted at capturing the imagination emotionally and visually in excellent balance. 

Grade: B+

No comments: