‘Chicken with Plums’ full of the unexpected

Mathieu Amalric stars as Nasser-Ali Khan, a virtuoso violinist whose lost instrument prompts thoughts of suicide. (Patricia Khan/Sony Pictures Classics)
Mathieu Amalric stars as Nasser-Ali Khan, a virtuoso violinist whose lost instrument prompts thoughts of suicide. (Patricia Khan/Sony Pictures Classics)

CHICKEN WITH PLUMS

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‘Chicken With Plums” isn’t a continuation of “Persepolis” (2007). This is a disappointment and a relief. Both films are written and directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud and based on a graphic novel by Satrapi.

It’s a disappointment because that animated feature was a marvel. “Persepolis” was smart and funny and alive with invention, as well as an uncommon ability to blend tragedy and comedy. A distinctive gray-black look (taken from the graphic novel) communicated the film’s seriousness without ever limiting its wit or playfulness.

It’s a relief that “Chicken With Plums” isn’t a sequel because “Persepolis” clearly began to run down toward the end — and where could it go, once its young heroine had left Iran to live in the West for good? Part of the excitement of watching “Persepolis” was the very personal window it afforded on a rich and highly different culture that Americans are familiar with from headlines but know almost nothing about otherwise.

“Chicken With Plums” has Iran in common with “Persepolis,” but little else. Largely, though not entirely, live action, it’s a fairly traditional story about thwarted love — a kind of fairy tale for grown-ups. Most of it takes place in 1958 (with flashbacks to two decades earlier and a few flash forwards, too). The filmmakers’ pleasure in getting the art direction just so is almost palpable, and the wine-dark palette beautifully complements the period look. Nasser-Ali Khan (Mathieu Amalric) is a virtuoso violinist unhappily married to a schoolteacher. Maria de Medeiros, as the wife, has a face like a bespectacled teardrop, which befits her tear-filled life.

The couple have two young children. Chiara Mastroianni (who voiced Satrapi’s character in both the French- and English-language versions of “Persepolis”) has a pair of scenes as the daughter grown up, and they’re caustic bliss. Mastroianni has a face the camera can’t get enough of, as one might expect of the daughter of Catherine Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni. Isabella Rossellini, another daughter of screen royalty, plays the violinist’s mother. Her presence is no less majestic for being brief. Rossellini’s resemblance to her mother, Ingrid Bergman, is starting to become uncanny.

As the film begins, Nasser-Ali is looking for a new violin. How he came to need it, and because of whom, are crucial points we won’t learn until much later. No instrument, not even a Stradivarius, can reproduce the sound he got out of his old violin. So with considerable theatricality he resolves to kill himself. Amalric, with his protuberant eyes, can look almost like a cartoon character — or a suave Steve Buscemi — which helps make the theatricality work.

Nasser-Ali’s resolution inspires a set of eight tableaux. You can see the fairy tale element in the structure. These are full of imaginative flourishes: an animated segment involving a visit from the angel of death; appearances by Socrates and Sophia Loren (as a character, not the actual actress); a flash forward, involving both Viewfinder slides and sitcom-like staging, to the life in Wyoming of Nasser-Ali’s grown son. Suicide has rarely been so lively — or prolonged.

Satrapi and Paronnaud are trying things, both visually and as storytellers. Thematically, too: An artist is rejected by a beautiful woman, Irâne (Golshifteh Farahani); read into that name what you will. So much invention notwithstanding, there’s a static quality to “Chicken With Plums.” The more that different (and unexpected) things happen on the screen, the more the plot just seems to idle. The film has many marvelous parts. “Predictability” is not in Satrapi and Paronnaud’s vocabulary, and that is no small thing in this or any other movie era. But the whole those parts form never exceeds their sum. “Persepolis” is about a journey to an unknown destination. “Chicken With Plums” is about a preordained destination. That’s a big, and in key respects, somewhat disabling difference.

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