The title of the new French film playing at the Varsity Theater, Chicken with Plums, only relates to the movie in two ways.
1. Like the meal, the movie is a delicious blend of different ingredients that somehow blends deliciously, sweet and salty: It’s an imaginative meal for your film-viewing eyes. And 2: The protagonist’s wife, in the last moments of desperation over her husband’s suicidal pact with himself to wait in bed until he dies because he can no longer live without the violin she has broken, hopes to lure him back to the safe harbor of sanity through cooking him his favorite meal of chicken and plums in an attempt, if you will, to have him regain a taste for life.
This French film is written and directed by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, who both also wrote and directed the film Persepolis, an Academy Award nominee for Best Animated Film.
Though I never saw Persepolis, I can see how Paronnaud and Satrapi’s background in creatively composing animation comes into play in Chicken with Plums, which contains some whimsically dark elements of animation that are dropped in during particular moments of the narrative, enhancing the theatrical and fantastical feel of the film.
Nasser Ali is a world-famous violin player who was once passionate and alive, but is now married to a woman he doesn’t love and can only find solace in playing his violin, at the cost of his relationship with his wife and children.
They live their married lives together in a state of tension and unfulfilled hopes of happiness, and one day, the wife snaps. She breaks it in an outburst of anger, and Nasser Ali resolves to die once he realizes that no other violin can replace the one that lies in pieces, swathed in a lacy cloth beneath his bed.
The film is formatted around the eight days it takes Nasser Ali to die. He waits for death to take him away gracefully as he lies in bed. He considers other options, like lying down on the railroad track, or swallowing pills and covering his head in a plastic bag, but he doesn’t want to be known as The Great Violinist Plastic Bag Guy.
During each of these dismal days, we gain insights into his life — his past and his relationships. We flash into the the far future of his adorable children (who speak in the cutest of French as children and become dark and disturbed in their adult years), just as we flash into the far past of his childhood and, later, into the pivotal relationship with the only love of his life, a beautiful brown-eyed brunette named Iran who inspires him emotionally, and by association, musically.
As the days pass and Nasser Ali continues deteriorating, we see the memories of his life literally flash before his, and our, eyes. During each of these time-flashes, we see a different layer of the narrative fly loose, revealing something new and unexpected underneath.
We begin to ever so subtly discover why he is the quirkily stale-faced and seemingly melodramatic, moustached man he is today as everything falls into place. We understand why he is so cold toward his puppy-dog wife, and why it makes sense for him to give up on life.
These time-flashes pull us deeper down the rabbit hole of his demise, but the fall is surreal, whimsical and often humorous. We learn that music and love are inexorably connected, and when one is gone, so is the other.
The film is darkly humorous, with scenes that lift you up into strange worlds using animation, parody, film noir and theatrical lighting and composition.
Mythical and imaginary beings, like the Angel of Death, appear in scenes conversationally. Tiny rooms transform into enormous rooms and cities become scenes from pop-up books. Ghosts appear and disappear and scenes transition into other scenes almost poetically.
The film, in its form, is like a collage of memories, and in its medium, like a collage of diverse cinematography. The result is gorgeous and writhing with emotion.