A fable about the damage done when a young couple is forced to part, Chicken with Plums is deeply melancholic, yet so full of humor and humanity that it pulses with life even while tracing the trajectory of a slow suicide. Close to the beginning of the film, and repeated again near the end, is a chance encounter between aging violinist Nasser-Ali Khan (Mathieu Amalric) and a beautiful woman about his own age. The encounter leaves Nasser-Ali deeply shaken—but then, this is a man who appears to become easily verklempt. (Amalric makes a thoroughly convincing Iranian artiste, with his sadly expressive black eyes and poetic air.)
Then Nasser-Ali declares his intention to die and the film starts hopscotching through time, flashing forward to his funeral and back to the eight days between his death and that fateful encounter, layering flashbacks within flashbacks to tell the story of Nasser-Ali, the love of his life, Irâne (Golshifteh Farahani), and the family he forms and neglects after her old-fashioned father (Serge Avedikian) forbids them to marry. Bit by bit, we come to understand what really happened in that encounter and why it meant so much to Nasser-Ali.
Co-writers and co-directors Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi mix the animation they used to fictionalize the story of her youth in their brilliant debut, Persepolis, with live action surrealistic enough to maintain the fairy-tale feel. Expressionistic acting and intensified colors meld with slightly stylized backgrounds and effects, like the huge snowflake that floats down in one scene, eventually landing on Nasser-Ali's daughter's tongue.
One of many welcome surprises in this emotionally simple but structurally complex story is how sensitively it conveys not just the damage done to the lovers when they were forced apart, but the way that damage ripples down through generations, weakening the family Nasser-Ali listlessly allows himself to become part of after losing his love. As their story unfolds, his wife Faringuisse (Maria de Madeiros, who has the look and the wary charm of a Portuguese Hope Davis), who seems at first to be a nagging harridan, turns out to be a tragic figure in her own right.