Chicken with Plums, opening Friday in limited release, is a fascinating puzzle: at once a mordant comedy, a tale of unrequited love and a story of heart-breaking artistry. Directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud from Satrapi's graphic novel, it is magical and mysterious, a story of love lost - and lost again.
The storytelling is deceptive: Initially, we see Nasser-Ali (Mathieu Amalric), a violinist in Teheran in search of an instrument to replace the broken violin that has made him famous. But none of the instruments he buys have that magic something. After an encounter on the street with a woman who says she doesn't remember him, he goes home, locks himself in his bedroom and announces that he's decided to die. And, the narrator announces that, on the eighth day hence, he did in fact expire.
The film then backs up to chronicle the eight days Nasser-Ali spends waiting for death. In the process, it skips back and forth through his life, looking at the choices, the triumphs and the disappointments that colored and comprised his existence.
Gradually, the smaller incidents begin to accrete around the grain of sand that is Nasser-Ali's life, slowly revealing the pearl that is this film. We see his childhood as an aspiring musician (and scapegoat student); his years of study with a guru (who chides him for the lack of soul in his playing, despite the perfection of his technique); the woman (Maria de Medeiros) who has loved him since childhood; and the woman (Golshifteh Farahani) who got away.
The filmmakers zoom back and forth in the various characters' history, making fanciful leaps into the future to show the fates of Nasser-Ali's two misbehaving children. And Satrapi, whose Persepolis was a highly regarded animated film, incorporates an animated interlude about one's inability to escape fate.
It's all shot in a heightened visual style on obvious soundstages: faux reality revealing real, even extravagant feelings. There's more than a little Scheherazade at work here, peeling away layers of this story to reveal yet another story -- and another piece of the puzzle -- underneath. By the end, you have the full picture, if you've been paying attention.
Amalric, so good in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and the best thing about the overrated A Christmas Tale, has a cartoonish quality that works here. His slightly pop-eyed look and simmering temper call to mind Wile E. Coyote, at times. The only thing he doesn't have is wisps of smoke coming out of his years when he gets angry.
Yet his heart is also extravagantly visible; his feelings are ever present on his face, as he copes with the suffocation of love and the tidal wave of disappointment. It's as full-bodied and yet nuanced a performance as you'll see this year.
There is a distinct physical resemblance between the two women in Nasser-Ali's life: de Medeiros and Farahani. You need to get a good fix on them or you may wind up confused, when the filmmakers finally reveal the full breadth of Nasser-Ali's story in the concluding moments.
But you should come away satiated with feeling, the result of a film -- Chicken with Plums -- that is a feast for the soul.
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