The same winning balance of seriousness and humor that made “Persepolis” such a hit works equally well in “Chicken With Plums,” whose visual flair proves that helmers Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud have a career in live-action as well as in animation. Largely set in 1958 Tehran, the story, adapted from Satrapi’s graphic novel, is a fail-safe tale of lost love leavened with panache, incorporating past and present with sweet and sour flavorings. It’s a rich, enjoyable repast certain to grace screens worldwide, where many will come back for second helpings.
Azrael, the Angel of Death (Edouard Baer), narrates “Chicken With Plums,” so auds already know the protag’s inevitable outcome. Nasser Ali (Mathieu Amalric) is a musician with a wife, two children, the enduring memory of a fatal first love, and now a wish to die. This urge for self-destruction arises suddenly (though it was obviously brewing), soon after he sees his former flame Irane (Golshifteh Farahani) on the street and she appears not to recognize him.
The encounter triggers a troubled introspection that leads him to take to his bed, determined to die. From there the pic is divided into chapters, each one a day in the countdown of his soon-to-be-extinguished life. Though the divisions are clear-cut, the sections themselves shift into past and present, filling in relationships with a delightful sense of playfulness that sweetens the bitterness but never tips into the sugary. The helmers realize this delicate balance partly by creating characters who aren’t immediately likable: Nasser Ali is cruel and ill-tempered, while his wife, Faringuisse (Maria de Medeiros), is shrewish. Yet as the story develops and details of their past emerge, their motivations become clear, turning disappointments into softening agents and generating enough sympathy to produce a lump in the throat, the expected ending notwithstanding.
What Satrapi and Paronnaud have really achieved is an evocation of a lost world, much as they did in “Persepolis.” They’ve beautifully re-created the fiercely proud, Western-leaning life of the Persian middle class of the 1950s, all constructed in Berlin’s Babelsberg studios with the kind of atmospheric quality of Fellini’s Cinecitta-constructed Romagna (there’s a nice visual homage to Fellini when Nasser Ali imagines being engulfed in Sofia Loren’s outsized breasts). The side characters, such as Jamel Debbouze’s two cameos, are lovingly constructed from the heightened haze of nostalgia, neither fully real nor fully cartoonish.
The same can be said for the protags, all played initially on the cusp of exaggeration (Amalric’s extra-wide open eyes, de Medeiros’ screechiness) before gradually developing into real people. Though comparisons may be made with the exaggerated stylings of “Amelie,” the people in “Chicken With Plums” eventually lose that sense of artificiality, or rather it becomes superseded by real emotion.
Satrapi, who apparently was largely responsible for guiding the performances, not only chose her cast well but unquestionably knew how to coax from them what she wanted — not just for dominant thesps like Amalric, whose nervous energy is put to good use, but also more supporting ones, such as iconic beauty Farahani (not for nothing is her character named “Irane”). Chiara Mastroianni is terrific in her brief screen moments as Nasser Ali’s grown daughter, Lili, hiding behind her long hair while tossing off deadpan lines, and even the two tykes playing young Lili (Enna Balland) and young Cyrus (Mathis Bour) are a delight.
Stephane Roche’s superb editing never makes the back and forth between past and present feel as if it’s going to overwhelm the structure, and for the most part he and the helmers know exactly how long to hold a scene to elicit the maximum emotion or humor without pushing too hard. Sole exception is a flash-forward to the adult Cyrus (Christian Friedel) living an American sitcom life; while funny, it would be sharper if it were shorter.
Animation is occasionally incorporated, as background or in a tale told by Azrael, reminding auds of the helmers’ origins and furthering the pleasant sensation of a fairy-tale story turned human. Special effects are never in-your-face, and when they are used, such as lovely images with smoke, the effect is magical. Olivier Bernet’s score matches the near-perfect balance.