Iranian-born artist Marjane Satrapi’s first film, “Persepolis” (2007), won critical acclaim and an Oscar nomination for best animated feature. It was the story of her rebellious adolescence under the tyrannical rule of Iran’s mullahs. Urged by movie studios to repeat her success with another animated adaptation of her work, she rebelled again, said “no,” and made her first live-action film, “Chicken With Plums,” which opens Friday.
Asked about the switch to live action, Satrapi says she and her French film partner, Vincent Paronnaud, wanted to tackle a different kind of cinematic challenge. Plus, she confides, “Animation sucks,” and “when you are finished, you are crawling over the ground like a worm on your knees . . . no, on your whole body.”
The movie was adapted from Satrapi’s second comic book — the term she prefers to “graphic novel,” which she considers a “bourgeois” euphemism. It’s the second part of a trilogy that began with “Persepolis” and will conclude with “The Eleventh Laureate,” which she plans to write as a screenplay, not a comic.
Interviewed together, the filmmaking duo suggests a French-speaking Laurel and Hardy. Paronnaud is thin, soft-spoken, and smiles wryly behind large glasses and a full beard. Satrapi is curvaceous and demonstrative, with black hair and eyes, and a propensity for bawdy bombast. She translates Paronnaud’s French, amping up the intensity of his words. They collaborated well about “90 percent of the time,” she says. Then there were moments when they fought so intensely that “We’d go to church and pray the other would die.” Paronnaud says the conflict was “normal.” To work together in a new medium, he says, “We [had] to be aware of our own weaknesses and be aware that we don’t know everything.”
The story is a fabulist version of the life and death of Satrapi’s mother’s uncle, Nasser-Ali Khan, one of Iran’s best-known musicians in the 1950s. In her retelling, he’s played by Mathieu Amalric and takes to his bed to await death, heartbroken that he can no longer play the violin after the love of his life, Irâne, fails to recognize him on the street. Satrapi explains the difficulty of adapting her book to the screen: “What could be more boring than a depressed guy who decides to die?” She and Paronnaud, also a cartoonist and novice filmmaker, constructed a “drawer-type” film that opens and closes compartments of the dying man’s memory as he confronts his wife, his children, Sophia Loren’s breasts, and, ultimately, a garrulous Angel of Death.
“Death,” Satrapi explains, is used in the film “to talk about life.” “In today’s world, death does not exist. . . . You’re young, and then you get some botox and you look weird, and then you disappear. The reality is that you’re young and then you’re less young and then you’re old and then you die. Since it’s part of life, it can’t be so scary.” Or that’s her hope, says the 42-year-old artist, laughing loudly.
Though “Chicken With Plums” is not as autobiographical as “Persepolis,” it’s rich in details of Satrapi’s family history. In one wrenching scene, Nasser-Ali takes his young daughter to a puppet show and pointedly shows her that the puppets are not real. The incident comes from a story told to Satrapi by her mother, whose father was a revolutionary. He believed that his children should live in the “reality of life.” Recounting her mother’s reaction, Satrapi says, “Her heart was broken. She didn’t want to know that the puppets weren’t actually real. It was one of the first stories that I heard as a child.” Even when told by a 30-year-old woman, she remembers, “I could see the despair in her eyes.”
Satrapi and Paronnaud bathe their story in a 1950s styling, drawing on cinematic techniques popular a half century ago. Shot entirely in the studio over 46 days, the film relishes Technicolor treatments and noirish street scenes. Each segment of the movie uses a distinct look to construct the patchwork of Nasser-Ali’s deathbed memories. Although it incorporates brief animation sequences, the film looks nothing like the spare black-and-white animation of “Persepolis.” The sets, however, retain a crafted, painterly look that reveals the drawing-board sensibilities of the two cartoonists.
The duo’s affection for older movie styles does not extend to the rituals of modern-day Hollywood. They were thrilled by their Oscar nomination and not very surprised that “Persepolis” lost out to Pixar’s “Ratatouille,” given the relative budgets and exposure of the two movies. But Satrapi describes their visit to the Academy Awards as “the worst experience of our life.” It began, she said, with the arrival of a DVD from the academy giving nominees detailed directions about Oscar-night procedures and protocols. Satrapi felt her spontaneous spirit was being scripted. Then came the customary hair and makeup session — the antithesis of Satrapi’s casual Parisian chic. “I had to be dolled up, makeup, etc. I looked a little like a hooker when they made me up.”
Satrapi’s other recent visits to the United States have been more pleasurable — invitations to film symposia and college lectures. She’s especially happy that her Iranian origin no longer arouses suspicion, and she is not required to undergo special questioning when flying into the country. “They don’t put me in the [immigration detention] room anymore.” She does still chafe under American smoking bans and rushed from an hourlong interview in a Boston hotel to the sanctuary of Boylston Street where she could light up. Smoking suffuses “Chicken With Plums,” and there are moments when the viewer worries that Nasser-Ali might succumb to emphysema before he dies of melancholy. Satrapi is unabashed in defense of her vice and its use in the film. She points out that the story is set in the 1950s when everyone smoked, and she still embraces that culture today. “I don’t want to quit smoking. I am convinced that if I quit smoking, the world would go to hell.” “It’s cinematographic to smoke,” she declares. “Imagine Lauren Bacall without a cigarette.”
Relocated by choice to France, Satrapi has not lived in Iran for 18 years and not visited for 13, even though her parents still live there. Her books and movies circulate on the black market. She could return but fears the government might not let her leave. “Chicken With Plums” is not overtly political, but it harbors an allegorical political subtext. The tragic events of Iranian politics are signposts in the story, and it is no accident that Nasser-Ali’s lost love is named Irâne. Satrapi explains that a story of exile undergirds the surface fable of a man dying for love, but she wanted a different tone from the more political “Persepolis.”
“I worked with politicians. I went to see them. At the beginning, I was, ‘The politicians, great, they want to change the world, blah, blah blah.’ And then you realize that they don’t want to change the world. It’s a question of power. By me getting close to politics, it made me an extremely cynical person, and I hate myself when I’m cynical.” She indicts the Iranian dictatorship because it “has confiscated from us our identity. We became this people — veil, beard, nuclear weapons — and the world is taking this image. Nobody is talking about our poets, our philosophers, our 1,000 years of history, our music, our beauty. If today I have to make a political statement, it is, “I love beauty.” I think beauty makes people better.”
Dan Wasserman can be
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