Chicken with Plums, the first live action film of French filmmaker Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis), is an agony of bad plotting and whimsical, lifeless scenes. It is the story of a man who, disappointed by life and love, decides to go to bed and die. And the movie does the same — only it dies a full hour before the finish.
Mathieu Amalric plays Nasser Ali, a violinist who does little in the film but smoke and look forlorn, and that’s even when he’s happy. At the start of the film, he is looking for a violin to replace his old one, but he can’t find anything that’s quite right, and so decides he doesn’t want to live anymore. At this point, a voiceover narrator steps in and gives the audience what seems, for a moment, like good news: We are told that Nasser died eight days later, and so we get ready for a new main character and a new focus, someone more promising and lively than this guy.
But no. Oh, no. He dies in eight days, all right, but the movie, instead of moving forward, now goes back in time to render in detail every little thing — every last forlorn, sad sack, smoke-filled, depressing and deadly dull thing — he did over the course of those eight miserable days. Satrapi and her co-writer director Vincent Paronnaud start at Day One, and by the time they get to Day Three, it becomes an open question who will slip into a coma first, the protagonist or the audience.
Indeed, the approach seems so misbegotten that the temptation is to look for some higher purpose or master strategy at work: Take a protagonist of no appeal and no energy and have nothing of interest happen to him. Kill all narrative suspense by announcing way in advance any tiny turn of plot. And then begin segments with the voiceover narrator saying things like, “Let us go back to Nasser Ali’s youth.” Why? Why would anybody want to go back to his youth, when all we’re doing is waiting for Day Eight?
The movie has considerable appeal in its landscapes and cityscapes — it’s set in Tehran, 1958 — and in its first moments, when an illustrated rendering of Tehran turns into a quite similar-looking street scene, Chicken with Plums offers a promise it never fulfills. Interiors are more uniformly drab and brown, but throughout, whenever the story moves outside, Satrapi and Paronnaud find a way to catch the eye, albeit temporarily.
The film seems to have attracted the participation of some big-name stars in France, but cameos by celebrities as Jamel Debbouze and Chiara Mastroianni won’t have the same impact on American audiences.
Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Maria Madeiros, Golshifteh Farahani.
Writers/directors: Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud.
Producer: Hengameh Panahi.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 93 minutes. In French with English subtitles. Opens Friday Sept. 14 in Miami-Dade: Tower; in Palm Beach: Shadowood, Delray.