There are moments during Chicken with Plums when Nasser-Ali Khan (Mathieu Amalric) seems so self-involved it’s difficult to not shout at the screen, “Why don’t you just pick up a violin and play it!” He’s a renowned virtuoso musician, after all, and in 1958 Tehran he still has half his life ahead of him. His favorite instrument, recently damaged, may be repairable, but he can no longer make sweet sounds with it as he did before. So despite having to support his wife Faringuisse (Maria de Medeiros) and two children, he decides to lay in bed until death comes to take him.
Co-directors Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud (Persepolis) proceed to take the audience on a surrealistic journey in their French-language Iranian tale, flashing back and forward through tangents and detours as Nasser’s true motivations for withdrawing from the world are slowly revealed. Nasser is assisted by Azraël (Edouard Baer), the grinning and hooded Angel of Death, in seeing what is in store for his children’s future, and he reminisces about his violin teacher and a mysterious girl he once liked. Still, his reasons for wanting to die remain a mystery until the eighth day.
By that time, Chicken with Plums has revealed much about the complexities of romance in patriarchal, mid-20th century Iranian society. Status factored into marriage more than love, and Nasser was young and penniless when he became of marrying age. Faringuisse, meanwhile, is both desperate and under-appreciated, alternately garnering audience sympathy and contempt. The question of why Nasser wants to die remains, and just as the wait for an answer becomes intolerable, the answer unfurls in a dazzling set of sequences and montages that demonstrates everything shown to us — like marriage and society itself — may not be as it seems, or what it should have been. MATT KELEMEN