Chicken with Plums
Directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud
Now playing at the Charles Theatre
It's a little surprising to hear the director of a critically acclaimed animated film exclaim, "Animation sucks!" Speaking over the phone with us to promote her latest film, a live-action project entitled Chicken with Plums, Iranian writer/director/artist Marjane Satrapi lamented the amount of time it took to produce 2007's Persepolis. "It has to be a couple of years that I forget how long and painful it was to make an animation and then I can start again," she says. "I love animation, but it really really takes a long time." Of course, there are some films that can only exist in that form, like the work of Hayao Miyazaki (My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away). "When I see the animation of Miyazaki, I say, 'There is no other way than this animation to make these films.' It's great. But it depends on the story."
For Satrapi, everything comes back to the story, which requires careful attention and cultivation from conception to release. Co-written and co-directed by Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, Chicken with Plums follows tortured musician Nasser-Ali Khan's descent into the depths of abject despair, crafting the arc of his path to the grave. The character, played by Mathieu Amalric, came to life when Satrapi saw a photograph of her great uncle, a handsome musician who struck her as very melancholic. "I was questioning what is art and life and death, and so I made a projection of myself on this character," she adds. From there, she began to sculpt the story of a man who loses his last remaining reason to live when his wife destroys his beloved violin. He chooses to die, waiting in bed for the Angel of Death (Edouard Baer) to arrive, revisiting old memories and fantasies before he passes on to the next realm. The result is a multifaceted, surreal look at one man's existence, a man who-at the film's outset-seems selfish, stubborn, and childish. But as the story progresses, his choices become more justifiable as the film reveals the actions that have shaped him. "The human being is imperfect and complex and complicated," Satrapi says. "So I think that everybody has to have the privilege to be bad sometimes. Being able to be bad should not be the privilege of the bad people."
Much like its characters, the style of Chicken with Plums is pliable, morphing from avant-garde film to fairy tale to American sitcom through the story of Nasser-Ali. Satrapi attributes it to the narrative itself: "Because when you lie down in the bed and remember your life, of course the memories they never come in the chronological way, but . . . some of your memories are extremely colorful and some of your other memories are completely blank or extremely minimalistic, and I just wanted to recreate [that]." One of the challenges that accompanies such an approach, though, is ensuring that each element blends seamlessly with the next, forming a coherent work that fluidly conveys the story. At the same time, Satrapi and Paronnaud ran into another hurdle: the budget. "This movie, for what it is, is not a high budget movie, and at the beginning we were supposed to have three times more than the budget that we had," she says. Ultimately, when they discovered that one elaborate scene would devour a tenth of their budget, they opted to animate it and found that the scene actually benefitted from that choice. "Less money doesn't mean less ambition. It means, how do you make it look just as good with less economical possibilities," she says.
For Persepolis, Satrapi found herself acting out each role for the animators. Chicken with Plums allowed her to work directly with actors, sharing the duties of developing the story with them. Luckily, they were all eager and talented collaborators, she says. "Sometimes they are so great that, as the director, you become the viewer of the film. You're watching them and you are like, 'Wow! He did that?'" Amalric's Nasser-Ali shifts from tortured, self-centered artist to loving father to lovesick youth, revealing many aspects of himself before fading away. Maria de Medeiros as his frustrated wife, Faringuisse, oscillates between stern schoolteacher and heartbroken woman throughout the course of the story, endearing herself to audiences. "Little by little, you learn to like her, to see her beauty. And at the end, you finish wanting to protect her," Satrapi says.
It's this ever-shifting approach that keeps the viewer engaged throughout the film, examining the story and its characters from every angle, which is due, in part, to Satrapi's inherent desire to explore and understand a person's entire being-including the less-than-attractive elements. "One of my favorite activities is to see and observe people and also observe myself, because sometimes I am really bad and pathetic and uncool," she says, "but it's not my fault that sometimes I'm bad. I am a human being. What can I do about that? Try to do better next time." And when it comes to upcoming projects, she always strives to get better with each undertaking. "Every time, you learn a little bit more. . . . I always have the frustration: 'This time, I am going to make a good film,'" she says with a laugh. Fortunately, Chicken with Plums stands out among this year's releases as not just a good film but a great one, and we're looking forward to what comes next.