Read all our coverage of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival here.
In her introduction to “Chicken With Plums,” Marjane Satrapi explained that the wait for her latest collaboration with Vincent Paronnaud was extended by the fact that “no one wanted a live-action film from us” following the acclaimed adaptation of her graphic novel/memoir “Persepolis.” If you can remember from that film, the ever-defiant Satrapi, animated whether hand-drawn or not, has a way of silencing her doubters and her first live-action film is no exception, though it may benefit from slightly lowered expectations.
As visually bewitching as their feature debut, Satrapi and Parronaud’s sophomore effort is a more slender tale, losing some of the deeply felt gravitas that naturally emanated from Satrapi’s personal experience without sacrificing any of its vibrant personality. Clearly, a shift in toolboxes hasn’t changed the duo’s approach to the sanguine story of Satrapi’s real-life relative Nasser Ali, a musician whose prized violin is destroyed, prompting him to commit suicide eight days later. But it is neither the violin or even necessarily Nasser that’s mourned, but rather the entire Ali family, which was born out of a slew of compromises that the film spends its duration getting to the bottom of.
If the filmmakers didn’t want to stray too far from their cartoon roots, they couldn’t have hired better than the wide-eyed Mathieu Almaric as Nasser and Maria de Medeiros as his neglected wife Faranguisse, a mismatched pair with a lonely daughter and a portly son to show for it. Of the four, only the boy is happy because he’s easily amused, and it’s all due to Nasser’s heartbreak decades earlier. Within the eight days following Nasser’s decision to die, the film moves back and forth to reveal the mystery of Nasser’s real pain and the impact it’s had on his wife and children in the past and the future.
Although the film obviously takes a different form than their first, Satrapi and Paronnaud have developed a signature style – bittersweet in tone and episodic in function, beginning and ending some scenes as though they were ellipses with a slow fade in or out to black. “Chicken With Plums” would be easy to compare to the frenzied work of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, except its filmmakers are concerned with the mechanics of time as a story element as much as the zip and zag of storytelling, the importance of small gestures as well as big ones that linger for years and very well could be eternal for the Alis.
Like “Persepolis,” it’s raucously funny at times, detailing Nasser’s fractured relationship with his brother with a flashback to when the two were in school and their teacher ordered the class to applaud one while booing the other, and later breaking form to present Nasser’s son’s tumultuous future as a gauche American sitcom. Chiara Mastroianni shows up from time to time as Nasser’s grown daughter Lili, a woman permanently scarred from when her father took her behind the scenes of a puppet show to see how they worked.
Satrapi and Paronnaud are too skilled to ever show you the strings of “Chicken with Plums,” but the film’s real magic is in how the duo has once again paid so much attention to detail, each character so immaculately designed and then richly portrayed by Almaric and company that they remain the center of attention, even when there’s so much to take in visually within every inch of the frame. Still, it’s the simple pleasure of a story well told that resounds in “Chicken with Plums,” especially when that story is told in a different way.
"Chicken With Plums" currently does not have U.S. distribution. It will play in Toronto once more on September 16th at the TIFF Bell Lightbox 1.