Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud previously collaborated on an animated adaptation of Satrapi’s comics autobiography Persepolis, but for their big-screen take on Satrapi’s graphic novella Chicken With Plums, the two are working in live-action, with actual actors on actual sets. Yet in some ways, Chicken With Plums is even cartoonier than Persepolis. The story starts in Tehran in 1958, then leaps backward and forward in time, roaming the globe, using the kind of visual flourishes and storytelling shortcuts that have more in common with a comic book than with an earnest indie drama.
Chicken With Plums stars Mathieu Amalric as a melancholy violinist who determines that life has lost all potential for pleasure, so decides to take to his bed and wait for death. Chicken With Plums goes day-by-day with the deathwatch, and during each day, the movie either explores a piece of Amalric’s history, examines the past and future of a member of his family, or digresses into outright folklore. As is often the case in stories like these, the hero is pining for a love lost, and as Satrapi and Paronnaud weave in and out of the story of how Amalric was forced into a life and marriage he never really wanted, they connect his situation to the choices other people in his life have made, aiming to evoke the deep, beautiful sadness at the core of everything.
Just as the plot combines fantastical and biographical elements—some of it is reportedly based on Satrapi’s own family legends—so the filmmaking veers from straightforward to more outsized. The tonal shifts don’t always work. (A fake sitcom sequence bombs badly, for example.) But the nested narrative structure gives the movie a sense of inevitability, making it all the more powerful when Amalric’s wife and kids try to figure out what could make him happy. What they don’t realize is that his depression only has a little to do with them, and a lot to do with living for decades under the heavy boot of fate.