Chicken with Plums is a movie by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, the same people who did Persepolis. Like Persepolis, the film is based on a graphic novel. Unlike Persepolis, most of the film is live action.
The film starts with a man buying a violin from a store. His name is Nasser-Ali Khan (Mathieu Almaric), and he is the greatest violinist in the world. Happy with his purchase, he walks out into the street and sees a woman that he recognizes. When he introduces himself to her, however, she says she doesn’t know him. At home, he plays the violin, but its beautiful tone suddenly sounds poor to him. In a rage, he goes back to the shop and demands his money back.
His brother Abdi (Eric Caravaca) then visits him and mentions another seller who has a Stradivarius for sale. Khan’s wife, Faringuisse (Maria de Medeiros) demands that he bring his son with him, since she won’t be around to take care of him while Khan is gone. Khan goes with his son, who is a terror on the bus ride there, and purchases the Stradivarius. Playing it at home, he is also unhappy with it, and then goes to his old violin case, where his former violin lies, broken. In a flashback, we see that Faringuisse broke it in a fit of rage.
A voice-over tells us that this is when Khan decides to shut himself in his room and wait for death, which comes eight days later. We then witness the events of those eight days, including flashbacks and flash-forwards that reveal what will happen to Khan’s children after he dies, how his wife met and married him, the source of his unhappiness, why that particular violin means so much to him, and even a visit by Azrael, the Angel of Death (Edouard Baer).
Imagination is something that is lacking in most art of the 21st century. Even fantasy novels have rules and rarely reach outside the boundaries of their own realities. This film has it, as it moves between past, present, and future, using imagery to create not just a place, but a mood. This is not done in a haphazard way: every technique used is to convey exactly the type of image and mood that the director wishes to communicate to the audience. And the filmmakers are much too smart to make this film all of one mood. There are intentionally over-the-top comedic sections, nightmarish hallucinatory sections, sentimental melodramatic sections, and sections with much pathos, helped by its unabashedly romantic and melancholic musical score.
And why is it called Chicken with Plums? That is Khan’s favorite dish, which Faringuisse tries to feed him when he is on his deathbed, in apology for destroying his violin. He says he will never forgive her and refuses to eat the meal. In this section (and some others) we find some empathy for Faringuisse, even though the movie has previously portrayed her as a shrill, awful woman (a sentiment echoed by Abdi). In fact, one of the amazing things about this movie is that it finds empathy for all of its characters.
But the heart of the film is the love story between Khan and the love of his life, named Irâne (Golfshifteh Farahani) . Before he meets her as a young man, his music teacher (Didier Flamand) says that his technique is fine, but his playing is awful. Once her father refuses their marriage on the grounds that he will never be able to financially support her as a musician, he plays again for his teacher, his broken heart transforming his playing into music. Now the teacher says that he is a great musician, and gives him the violin his master had given him. Through this violin, Khan can speak to his love. It is this violin that Faringuisse destroys, and it is for this reason that Khan will never forgive her.
The climax is an almost entirely wordless section that shows Khan touring the world with his violin, while Irâne marries another and raises her family, all the while listening to his broadcasts on the radio. The only dialogue we hear is on that day when she is out with her grandson and runs into Khan, buying his new violin. Then, we reach the last image in the film. Though unsurprising, it is moving, and perfect.
I saw Chicken with Plums with a small crowd on a rainy Thursday night — the final night of its run. I knew that I wouldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t see this film before it left the theater, but while I sensed how special it would be, based on my appreciation and love for Persepolis, I did not know how special it would turn out to be. So many movies this year have fallen short of greatness. This one soars over them like a high note struck on Khan’s violin. One of the best movies of the year.