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Poulet aux Prunes

September 14, 2012
Poulet aux Prunes

“Yeki boud, yeki naboud” — the precise sense of this traditional Persian fairy tale formula seems a bit elusive. As best I can place it, the literal “there was one, there was not one” expresses a sense of liminality: “this is not a factual story, but it is a true story.” And, with this “once upon a time”, Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud begin their adaptation of another of Satrapi’s graphic novels. Poulet aux Prunes — subtitled in English as Chicken with Plums — may not be as literally true as her autobiographical Persepolis, but it is a great and true story just the same. Richly textured and darkly humorous, it is a beautiful and introspective tale of love and loss.

It is 1958 in Tehran, and Nasser-Ali Kahn (Mathieu Amalric) has a broken violin and a broken heart. Even playing a Stradivarius rumored to have been owned by Mozart himself brings him no pleasure. And so Nasser-Ali — hailed as the world’s greatest violinist — decides to lay in his bed and wait for death to take him. Eight days later, he is buried.

In between play out eight episodes as Nasser-Ali’s mind wanders far from his bedroom. He thinks of his children, Lili (Enna Balland) and Cyrus (Mathis Bour) and foresees their future selves (Chiara Mastroianni and Christian Friedel). He remembers growing up with his studious brother, Abdi (Eric Caravaca). He remembers how he and his wife, Faringuisse (Maria de Medeiros), came to be married. He remembers the deathbed of his own mother, Parvine (Isabella Rossellini). He remembers studying the violin under his master (Didier Flamand), the woman he loved (Golshifteh Farahani), and how his violin came to be broken. And, when it is almost his time, he faces Azraël, the angel of death.

Paronnaud and Satrapi clearly owe a debt to Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain, down to the ever-present narrator (Edouard Baer) and the numerous asides. As in that fairy tale, many scenes take on a heavily constructed, dreamlike quality, emphasizing their roles as parts of a story. Here, though, a number of whole episodes take radical stylistic departures from the whole. An embedded fable is animated in Satrapi’s style — familiar from Persepolis — while the discursion on Cyrus’ future sounds a rare, extended off-note.

Still, this is no mere act of cinematic mimicry. Jeunet is ultimately whimsical, albeit with dark, subversive undertones. Poulet aux Prunes comes from a sadder, wiser place; whimsy serves to cut through and lighten up what could otherwise be a heavy, dour story, as plum preserves cut through chicken schmaltz.

But whether each of the stylistic experiments and visual whimsies work for you or not, all is prelude to a stunning climactic sequence. Film, like Satrapi’s graphic novels, is primarily a visual medium; Satrapi and Paronnaud show their mastery by cutting out dialogue entirely, relying on their talented cast — particularly Amalric and Farahani — their gorgeous visuals, and Olivier Bernet’s score to say all that needs to be said.

When we come to the end, we understand just what it is that Nasser-Ali has lost. We are left with a tragic love story, beautiful enough and moving enough that it almost doesn’t matter if we recognize the metaphorical subtext: a meditation on the history neatly elided by the action on the screen. Satrapi’s crowning accomplishment comes in crafting this sort of allegorical commentary that not only hides itself so cleverly but still manages to work so well on its superficial level.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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