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Chicken With Plums is about a middle-aged man who’s never loved his wife, is a terrible father, and decides he wants to die—so “playful” is surely one of the last words you’d think to associate with it. But the live-action debut of Persepolis filmmaker Marjane Satrapi (co-writing and -directing with Vincent Paronnaud) is far from a bummer. You may even laugh out loud.
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It’s 1958 in Tehran, and Nasser-Ali (Mathieu Amalric, familiar from Quantum of Solace and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) is a desperate man, suicidal after his cherished violin is broken and he can’t seem to find a satisfying sound with another. So without regard for his wife (Maria de Medeiros) or two young children, he takes to his bed and calls for eternal rest. It takes eight days—no spoiler here, as his funeral is shown near the film’s beginning before the story flashes backward—but the Angel of Death finally comes.
Of course, there’s more to this delicately told tale, and Satrapi and Paronnaud dole out the details with expert pacing that will keep you invested until the very last frame. The story is ultimately bittersweet, fleshing out the love Nasser-Ali’s wife has always had for him while he continues to carry a torch for another. The future of his daughter, too, is forecasted, and it’s a bleak one. But then there are the humorous touches: The fate of Nasser-Ali’s son plays out like the cheesiest of sitcoms, and that Angel of Death actually marks one of the funniest moments of the film. Even a montage of Nasser-Ali’s possible methods of suicide is cartoonish and amusing.
The directors lace their live action with animated touches that any Persepolis viewer will recognize as coming from Satrapi’s hand; several filmed scenes are so colorful and picturesque that they seem drawn. A lengthy, wordless sequence near the end of the film fills in the gaps of the story and leads up to the breaking of the violin, though we’ve already seen it happen once before. This time, however, the event has more meaning—and, after all the lightheartedness that has come before it, you understand why the instrument’s destruction is such a soul-sucking gut-punch.