It’s a well-worn observation that the book is better than the movie. But what about the graphic novel? It seems reasonable to expect the transition from one predominantly visual medium to another to be smoother. It was pleasing to see Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis gain wider attention through the animated film adaptation she directed in 2007 with Vincent Paronnaud. While fun, that film still had nowhere near the impact of the original.
Satrapi recently paired up with Paronnaud again to direct a film adaptation of her shorter graphic work, Chicken with Plums (Poulet aux Prunes, 2011), this time using predominantly live-action rather than animation. Mathieu Amalric stars as Nasser-Ali, a violinist who decides it’s time to die when his beloved violin is broken. Neither his wife, his two young children, nor his brother can dissuade him. On his elective deathbed, Nasser-Ali recalls his past, above all his doomed relationship with the beautiful Irâne.
Chicken with Plums is a very strange film, but the directors first deserve praise for their remarkably creative approach. Even if the film’s parts did not hang together well, Satrapi and Paronnaud should be admired for their willingness to switch between starkly different aesthetic modes. The film’s dominant style is that of the period piece, a conservative mode which makes creative departures all the more surprising. The directors have reproduced mid-twentieth century Iran with an intimate, almost mystical atmosphere, predominantly green in hue: a sort of fairy-tale re-imagining of place that recalls Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Then, without warning, the film makes a brief departure into garish, mass-produced modernity: a flash-forward to Nasser-Ali’s son’s future life in the U.S., complete with obese children, junk food, and chihuahuas. While embarrassingly caricatured in its portrayal of the American lifestyle, this episode could be an Iranian response to the West’s equally stereotyped images of Iran.
Later, in one of the film’s most pleasing sequences, Chicken with Plums incorporates a colourful animated episode to illustrate a story that the devil, Azraël, tells to Nasser-Ali. Speaking of the devil, Satrapi and Paronnaud also open the doors to the imaginary within the film’s period setting: the giant, black, long-horned, bright-eyed Azraël, for example, or Nasser-Ali’s suicidal and erotic fantasies. These imagined elements, which can be easily incorporated in an illustrated medium, often appear literal-minded in a live-action film: unnecessarily grotesque enactments of every idea that passes through the character’s head. Here again, the film recalls Jeunet, but without that director’s sense of charm and nuance.
Aside from its uneasy baroque tendencies, there is the issue of the story itself, which is based on the life of one of Satrapi’s relations. In the context of one’s own family, it is easy to see how a story of lost love could be intriguing. In the wider world, though, romantic disappointment is all too common, making it hard to see why Nasser-Ali’s story should be of special interest to the public. Given that his love story is unremarkable, it makes it even more difficult to accept the story’s other details: that he agreed to marry a woman he didn’t love, and that he now decides to die, leaving his two young children alone with their overly-demanding mother. Perhaps Nasser-Ali was more a more likeable character in the original work. In any case, when it comes to stories with a more personal relevance, literature may be a more sympathetic medium than film.
Chicken with Plums was screened at the BFI London Film Festival.