'Chicken With Plums': The day the music died

  • Article by: TOM HORGEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 13, 2012 - 4:09 PM

Imagine "Amelie" but with more gravitas: That's the latest from graphic-novel star Marjane Satrapi.

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Mathieu Amalric in "Chicken With Plums"

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Stick with what you know. So far, that's worked out pretty well for Iranian graphic novelist-turned-filmmaker Marjane Satrapi.

Based in Paris, she took the comic-book world by storm a decade ago with "Persepolis," a coming-of-age tale set during the Iranian Revolution. She is a master of economy, generating raw emotion with stripped-down, almost childlike drawings. Her 2007 film adaptation, co-directed with Vincent Paronnaud, didn't stray far, using crisp black-and-white animation. It won the Jury Prize at Cannes and an Oscar nomination.

For her second film, Satrapi, 42, again mines her own material, the graphic novel "Chicken With Plums." But the translation to live action comes with grander ambitions.

For the most part it's a savory treat, much like the titular dish. The tone is along the lines of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's "Amelie," but with nary a character as likable as Audrey Tautou's matchmaking nymph.

Maybe that's the point. At its core, "Chicken With Plums" is the story of a lovesick musician whose only cure is death. Don't worry, it's not as glum as it sounds.

In 1958, Nasser-Ali is the best violinist in Tehran. After a fight with his wife, she snaps his beloved instrument. The loss of the violin sends him into depression, and he dies from a broken heart.

But there's plenty of movie left. Satrapi sends us back through Nasser-Ali's life, revealing the source of his despair: a different love affair he was forced to give up long before this broken marriage.

As we hopscotch through his past, the fantastical is around every corner. Animated sequences burst onto the screen. Azrael, the angel of death, appears with horns and black face paint, showing Nasser-Ali the fate of his children as they tumble into adulthood.

All of this is handled with comic flair. While the setting is Iran, this is a French-language film. When Azrael first greets our protagonist, he says, "Bonjour, Nasser-Ali." It almost sounds delightful.

Satrapi has Westernized other parts of the graphic novel, including Nasser-Ali's violin, which was originally a tar, a long-necked Persian string instrument.

Playing Nasser-Ali is the Frenchman Mathieu Amalric, a gritty actor best known as the lead in Julian Schnabel's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." The strong cast includes Isabella Rossellini as Nasser-Ali's overbearing mother.

The story doesn't end well for our sad violinist. Still, the film's emotional conclusion actually improves upon the graphic novel.

If you're already a fan, it'll make you wonder: What's next for Satrapi? Back to comics? More movies?

She's good at both, and she knows it.

Tom Horgen • 612-673-7909 • Follow him on Twitter: @tomhorgen

  • CHICKEN WITH PLUMS

    ★★★ out of four stars

    Rated: PG-13 for some drug content, violent images, sensuality and smoking.

    Theater: Lagoon.

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