The French cinema Gods were no doubt chuckling when they conjured up Mathieu Amalric’s downcast, sad-sack face. Exaggerated and goldfish-like, yet pliable in a way that can convey deepest sadness or greatest joy, it, along with his formidable acting skill, has been used with great success by many a contemporary French auteur. He is widely known to stateside audiences from his performance in the art house hit The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, in which he played a “locked-in” stroke victim. But his more mobile roles have stolen scenes in plenty of other American and French films. Now he goes to bat for Persepolis mastermind Marjane Satrapi in Chicken with Plums, her live-action debut as a director.
In the film (co-directed by Vincent Parounnaud), Amalric plays Nasser-Ali Khan, perhaps the greatest violin player to perform in Iran in the time before the Shah. A man already possessed of a depressive nature, Nasser-Ali is thrown into deep despair after his violin is irreparably broken and he can find no suitable replacement. Alienated from his wife Faranguisse (Maria de Medeiros) and his two children, he decides to make a grand gesture of it and repairs to his bed to await death. Hours, then days go by with Nasser Ali taking little nourishment other than cigarettes. He begins to lose his sense of place and time, and the present horror of his situation is mingled with his past as a musician, flashes forward into the future lives of his children and brief interludes with the grim reaper.
Paronnaud and Satrapi use many of these fever dreams as flights of fancy, occasionally indulging in experiments in animation, overblown sitcom parody, and Talk to Her-esque trips into gargantuan female erogenous zones. Some of these more exaggeratedly comic scenes take away from the mournful heart of the film, and many of more the stylized elements in Chicken with Plums unfortunately have the same effect.
Happily, though, these interludes are few and far between. The co-directors largely focus on the searching, prolonged suicide/self analysis session that Nasser-Ali undertakes, and the heartbreak and disappointment at the center of it. Parounnaud and Satrapi display a deft, if not virtuosic, hand in the live action realm. But it’s the film’s cast that ultimately carries much of the rest of the weight, and they do a fantastic job. Special mention should go to de Medeiros, late of Pulp Fiction and Henry and June, who lends crushing pathos to Faranguisse’s twitchy, tragic devotion.
The film is ultimately grounded, though, by Amalric, and the weight he is able to throw around in a performance that could easily have become a caricature. Nasser-Ali is melodramatically miserable for much of the film, but Amalric grounds his performance in a real, deeply felt sadness that is made more acute when its true source is finally revealed. Amalric is playful with when he needs to be, yet still manages to pull off the deft trick of crafting a deeply identifiable character through all the sturm und drang.
And there is much of it: Parounnaud and Satrapi seem determined that Nasser-Ali should serve as a sort of axis mundi, serving as a convergence spot and a jumping-off point for Persian history. His suicide attempt coincides neatly with Mosaddegh’s ouster, and it’s tempting to see his turmoil and the ultimate fate of his progeny as an analogy for the embattled nation itself.
Paronnaud and Satrapi would like Nasser-Ali’s story to be an epic in miniature that encompasses the length and breadth of Iranian experience, but unfortunately they don’t quite get there. Nevertheless, Chicken with Plums stands as a better-than-average exploration of the turning points in one man’s life, and the triumph or tragedy that can weave itself through a person’s lifeline and on into the future.