I recently had a chance to attend a screening of Chicken With Plums, Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s adaptation of her graphic novel of the same name about a violinist, Nasser-Ali Khan (Mathieu Amalric), who makes the decision to give up on life. The movie itself is a wild ride through pre-revolutionary Iran, legendary Persia and the United States in a mix of live action and animation. And Satrapi’s talk after the screening was almost as wide-ranging, touching on her cinematic influences, getting audiences to relate to Iranian characters, and the value of reading her work for its politics, as well as her glimpses into the human heart.
Satrapi called back to an older tradition in discussing the multi-cultural nature of her movies, in which French actress Chiara Mastroianni has been a stand-in for Iranian Satrapi. “Cultures, they have so much influence on each other. You don’t get to the border and one culture stops and another begins. They are rings of the same tree,” she said. “You have an Iranian story, you shoot it in Berlin, it’s in French, and you present it in America…You had a man like [Ernst] Lubitsch, he made a set, called it Prague, and had Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper and they were Czech.” And she noted that while she and Paronnaud love European movies, “We also love American sitcoms because they were all over the world. Who’s The Boss was the impetus for us to make the sitcom section,” of Chicken With Plums, which follows Nasser’s son on a his picaresque immigration to the United States.
Satrapi said that one of the challenges in making Chicken With Plums was how quickly expectations for what she, as a graphic novelist, would do in movies became set. “Once you have made an animation movie that works, they want you to make another animated movie with the same subject,” she said. But she said that the tradition of underground art, where she and Paronnaud began their careers, gave them and their collaborators the advantage of low expectations. They, and the composer who wrote the original score for Chicken With Plums were less worried about making money than about making the work that was important to them.
It was an attitude that also served her well in making Persepolis. Satrapi said she’d been reluctant to pursue an adaptation because of their shaky track record, until a friend told her, she said, “Are you crazy? People are going to give you a couple million Euro…The worst thing that can happen is you make the worst movie in the world.” Even then, she was rigorous about what she wanted, reasoning that she wouldn’t make the movie if her conditions, including hand-drawn animation and casting Catherine Deneuve to voice her mother, weren’t met. Satrapi said it was important to her to make that movie with hand-drawn animation because “The abstraction of the drawing is something that let us tell a unique story, because anyone can relate,” but that because Chicken With Plums is a sweeping romance rather than a historically-engaged memoir, “This was a universal love story, so we didn’t need that.”
The movie traces the source of Nasser’s dissatisfaction back to the love of his youth, with a young woman named Irâne whose father refused to allow her to marry a musician without prospects. That journey back in time makes clear that Nasser’s brokenness is not simply a character trait, but the result of a profound disappointment that damaged his ability to connect with other people. To be nasty and bad cannot only be the privilege of nasty and bad people. Everyone has the right to be nasty and bad once in a while. His wife Faringuisse (Maria de Medeiros), “she’s like a maniac at the beginning but little by little, we see hear beauty and learn her cause and we come to love her,” Satrapi said.
And while Chicken With Plums is a story of doomed romances, Satrapi made it clear that she welcomes a political reading of Irâne, whose name stands in for her country, and whose rejection of Nasser inspires him to travel the world as a musician, bringing bits of his nation with him in a parallel of the diaspora that sent Iranians, including Satrapi, all over the world. “The story happens in 50 years. There was a coup d’etat that destroyed the dream of democracy, not just in Iran, but in the whole region, and the result is the situation you are living now,” she said. “It’s symbolic but it is something that is underneath. If you understand it, better. If not, it is a beautiful love story.”