Chicken with Plums is Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's somewhat surprising follow-up to Persepolis, their internationally lauded 2007 debut. Where Persepolis was an animated tour de force that documented a precocious Iranian girl's experience of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Chicken with Plums is a dramatically different, live-action treatment of a earlier era of Iran's history.
Unlike the heavily autobiographical Persepolis, Chicken with Plums is a fanciful, comic extrapolation of several mysterious forebears. In Persepolis, the girl and her family experience the terror of the regime's imprisonment of her Communist grandfather. That figure takes a minor role in the new film, which is by turns comic, sentimental, fantastical and satirical, but the main character is the grandfather's brother Nasser (Mathieu Amalric), a once-brilliant violinist who falls into self-pity and dissipation when he loses the ability to play his instrument.
Nasser is so depressed over the memory of a woman he once loved that he resolves to kill himself, and the point of Chicken with Plums is to explore scenes and characters from his life that have brought him to his despair. Although this is a live-action film, it's less realistic than Persepolis, which had a terrifying political backdrop to its animated fancies. Although Chicken with Plums seems to operate with lower stakes, it's propelled by the dashed dream of a different Iran. This is the modern, secular country that existed until 1953, when the United States backed a coup by Mohammad-Reza Shah Pahlavi in response to the democratically governed country's decision to nationalize its oil industry. The Shah ruled for a brutal quarter-century before the Ayatollah arrived; so, with that sad history, it's understandable that in Chicken with Plums, the beautiful woman of Nasser's youth is named "Iran."
Chicken with Plums was shot on French soundstages, with French-speaking actors. The film, which is adapted from Satrapi's graphic novel, is a series of vignettes done in broad strokes that evoke other film genres. Sometimes the pastiche is too relentless and self-referential for its own good, but much of it is quite effective. You may wince at the brutal parody of American sitcoms (and Americans), complete with fat rapping white teenagers. The cast is the pan-European lot that you see in the films of such international festival stalwarts as Lars von Trier and the late Raul Ruiz (whose influence is felt here). In addition to Amalric, there's Maria de Medeiros, Isabella Rossellini, Chiara Mastroianni and Golshifteh Farahani (an Iran-born, France-residing beauty best known here for Body of Lies).
Although compelling, Chicken with Plums doesn't resonate the way Persepolis did, but fans of that film, and of adventurous, genre-defying films in general, should seek it out.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Dreams and freedom."