Movie review in the Friday, Oct. 5 Oregonian....
As I wrote back in 2008, the power of Marjane Satrapi's memoir "Persepolis" -- both the two-volume graphic novel and the 2007 animated film -- can be found in the way Satrapi used simple pictures to make complex points. (She certainly painted a more sophisticated picture of Iranian culture in cartoons than most of the Western world's sputtering pundits could manage with words at the time.)
By contrast, Satrapi's follow-up film, "Chicken with Plums" -- which re-teams Satrapi with her "Persepolis" co-director Vincent Paronnaud -- uses more complicated images (and narrative devices) to tell a much simpler story.
The new film is nakedly artificial -- brazenly combining live actors, animation, old-school studio sets, storybook backgrounds, dream sequences and flashbacks and -forwards in contrasting styles (including a laugh-tracked spoof of U.S. sitcoms) to make a funny/sad fairy-tale collage out of the final days of Satrapi's real-life relative, professional violinist Nasser-Ali Khan (Mathieu Amalric).
The film begins in the fall of 1958, when a broken violin mysteriously saps the remaining passion out of Nasser's life. "Since no violin would ever give him the pleasure of playing," a narrator intones, "he decided to die." Nasser dramatically takes to his bed and selfishly waits for the Angel of Death to take him -- to the consternation of Nasser's arranged-marriage wife (Maria de Medeiros) and the relative indifference of his two children.
From there, a series of flashbacks (and an amusing appearance by Azrael, the literal Angel of Death) fill in the narrative gaps -- revealing compromises, injustices, aspirations and resentments that explain Nasser's failures as a family man and why a romantic death-swoon seems like such a good idea. Amalric does a wonderful job helping us understand a fellow whose deep passions and monomanical focus propel him to occasionally ugly behaviors. And gorgeously bittersweet moments abound, as when a departing soul is rendered as a cloud of smoke that alternately winds and lingers.
"Chicken with Plums" deploys all this complex narrative artifice to a surprisingly simple end: There's something sort of early-20s in the way the film mythologizes lost love, fate, melancholia, the soul and the pursuit of artistic truth, even at the cost of life, family and practicality. The movie's not an epic cultural and personal achievement like "Persepolis," but it's affecting as near-operatic melodrama (particularly during one heartbreaking, years-spanning late-film montage) and it's fascinating as an offbeat storytelling exercise.
(93 min.; rated PG-13 for violent images, sensuality, some drug content and smoking; currently playing in Portland at the Fox Tower) Grade: B
'Chicken with Plums' (The Oregonian, Friday, Oct. 5, 2012)