A creative virtuoso can transform personal experience into art. Cartoonist and filmmaker Marjane Satrapi has told her life story in two separate art forms, first with her autobiographical graphic novel “Persepolis,” then with the animated film adaptation of the same name. Despite Hollywood’s current love affair with comic books, few movies have brought graphic novel illustrations to animated life. “Persepolis” married the iconography of Satrapi’s simple drawing style with the emotional engagement of motion pictures.
In “Chicken With Plums,” Satrapi and her “Persepolis” collaborator Vincent Paronnaud adapt another of the graphic novelist’s works, this time for a live-action film featuring internationally acclaimed actors Mathieu Almaric and Isabella Rossellini. A fictional tale with flourishes of magical realism and set in Tehran in 1958, it evokes Satrapi’s work on paper with matte paintings and animated credits that emulate her drawing style. But whereas “Persepolis’ ” illustrative style illuminated Satrapi’s youthful experiences in Iran and Paris, “Plums” struggles to find the proper live-action vocabulary for its ruefully humorous, episodic story.
Almaric plays Nasser Ali, a morose, middle-aged violinist living in Tehran after 20 years of touring (and based on one of Satrapi’s relatives). Early in the film, he runs into a woman (Golshifteh Farahani) who claims not to recognize him, throwing him into a spiraling depression. He tries to raise his spirits by buying an instrument alleged to be Mozart’s Stradivarius, but even the possession of such a prize fails to do the trick, so he resolves to end his life.
In a prime example of the movie’s eccentric sense of comedy and sharp switches in tone, a slapstick montage shows Nasser contemplating various forms of suicide, such as a gunshot to the head, which causes blood to fountain forth like grape juice. But rather than do anything painful, he decides that he simply won’t leave his room or feed himself until death comes, and this starts a countdown with such titles as “The First Day” and so on.
While most of the action is confined to the bedroom and adjacent courtyard, the narrative flashes back to explore the roots of Nasser’s unhappy marriage to Faranguisse (Maria de Medeiros), his tempestuous musical training and so on. It even jumps forward to glimpse the future lives of his children as adults. His silly little boy grows into a middle-class American immigrant, whose life unfolds as a garish 1960s-era sitcom, with a vacuous wife and three obese children. Most of these fantastical moments prove heavy-handed and jarring, but a charming interlude depicts Azrael (Edouard Baer), the black-hooded angel of death, paying Nasser a visit.
Camera shots often unfold like the flat actions in comic book panels, in the way the camera tracks a snowflake floating down into Nasser’s daughter’s mouth or follows a pair of high-heeled shoes down a sidewalk. Nearly every action and pose seems completely stage-managed: during a dinner-table argument about the children, Faranguisse points at their son with index finger outstretched like a caricature of an angry mother. The film’s best moments are the ones that settle down and breathe, giving the actors a chance to hold an emotional beat, such as Faranguisse primping in a mirror before attempting to reconnect with Nasser, or Nasser’s aging mother (Rossellini) savoring a final cigarette.
Satrapi and Paronnaud, as co-writers and co-directors, seek to emulate films like “Amelie” and “The Royal Tenenbaums,” which strike worldly, detached attitudes toward such universal constants as sexual desire and the fear of death. Despite their obsessively controlled role models, “Chicken With Plums” struggles to find the right tone, and its irreverent approach clashes with an apparently sincere embrace of corny lines such as “You are a great musician, finally. You have managed to seize the sigh.”
Almaric, acclaimed for his work in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” gives the best performance he can, given that the film seems torn between sympathizing with Nasser and mocking his artistic pretensions and spiteful melancholia. Because the musician’s death wish will have serious consequences for his family, we can’t simply dismiss him as a misguided fool, and the ending fails to resolve the thematic contradictions. Satrapi has previously established herself as an impeccable graphic novelist and imaginative animator, but her live-action effort suggests that two out of three ain’t bad.