Mathieu Amalric and Enna Balland star in "Chicken With Plums." (Patricia Khan, Sony Pictures…)
"Chicken With Plums," the second movie from the directors of the animated feature "Persepolis," is a live-action work that uses animation as a flourish. Yet it's more of a cartoon than its predecessor, with Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud adopting a self-contained visual scheme for nearly every emphatic emotion.
And there are no other kinds of emotion in this time-shifting memory poem: The romance is absolute, the despair unquenchable. Even more than its source material, Satrapi's graphic novel of the same name, the film is a luxuriant lament. Moving from the autobiographical realism of "Persepolis," Satrapi tells the story of a great uncle, a story about Iran and art and beauty.
That uncle, a renowned violinist named Nasser Ali, is played by the indispensable Mathieu Amalric, whose fluent expressiveness is at one with the film's reverie. Nasser Ali's melodrama begins in a back lot version of 1958 Tehran, where he takes to bed, waiting to die, because someone close to him has destroyed his beloved instrument. (In a disappointing change, the Iranian tar, or lute, of the book becomes the more familiar fiddle.)
The eight days of Nasser Ali's wait for death unfold chronologically, but within each day his thoughts carry the story from flashback to flash-forward and back to the broken-spirited present, where his violin and his marriage are both in pieces. As his demanding and pragmatic math teacher wife, Maria de Medeiros is fed up and heartbroken, her face a soured valentine. "You knew I was an artist when you married me," Nasser Ali says, surely one of the most uttered sentences in the history of matrimony.
Courtesy of narration by the Angel of Death (who eventually shows up, played by Edouard Baër) and stylized leaps of imagination, Nasser Ali learns the fate of the young daughter who shares his melancholy, and who grows up to be played by Chiara Mastroianni. The stateside future scenario for his garrulous son, meant to underscore his materialism, plays out as a shrill parody.
The shifts in tone and style, from fairy tale to sitcom grotesquerie, silent comedy to Expressionist chiaroscuro, can be delightful or jarring and sometimes distract from the story rather than enrich it. The fragments don't really cohere, but even so the puzzle pieces of Nasser Ali's saga reveal how loss has shaped his life.
Along the way, there are stirring politics-vs.-art arguments with his activist brother, a paean to Sophia Loren and the wonderful interplay between Amalric and Isabella Rossellini, as Nasser Ali's imperious mother.
The emotional heft of their scenes is a welcome break from the hyperbole. So is the lush romanticism of the final, wordless sequence that ties together a tale in which destiny denied is destiny.
It's not entirely satisfying, but there's plenty to savor in "Chicken With Plums."
'Chicken with Plums'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some drug content, violent images, sensuality and smoking; in French with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes
Playing: At Sundance Sunset Cinemas, West Hollywood; Laemmle's Monica 4-plex, Santa Monica
PHOTOS AND MORE:
PHOTOS: Hollywood back lot moments
Latest movie reviews
PHOTOS: NC-17 movies: Why they got the rating