Life. If only you knew what I think of life.
So says Chiara Mastroianni's dark, chain-smoking femme fatale Lili on the second day of Chicken With Plums, Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi's eight-day ode to love and all its pleasures and demons. By the end of the epicly beautiful film, we've learned what this pair of writer-directors think of existence in all its iterations.
A tale of love lost and the endless quest to find purpose in its cavernous wake, of the pain that remains when a shared life is torn away from two whose adoration for one another never fades, Chicken With Plums -- which had its U.S. premiere Thursday at Tribeca Film Festival 2012 -- takes us from the transcendent gardens of Tehran to the dreary streetscapes of a lonesome Paris.
Prodigal musician Nasser-Ali Khan, (played deftly by Mathieu Amalric), declares on the second day in an existential manner that sets the tone for much of the core of the film that he has decided to die. His beloved master's violin destroyed by his doting wife who he's never loved, he gives up on being and attempts suicide by failure to participate.
And he comes pretty close to that goal, turning down even his favorite dish of chicken with plums and the company of his young children in search of the end that just won't arrive soon enough
But on the sixth day, Azrael, the Angel of Death (Edouard Baer) does appear to him, an apparition in the night of despair and listless boredom. Horned and draped in black, Azrael appears like something out of The Seventh Seal, imbued with the dark sarcasm of Sartre's lighter moments. If No Exit tells us that Hell is other people, then Nasser-Ali shows us that the wrong companions, no matter how well-intentioned, can create a Hades of a different stripe.
But Death doesn't let Nasser-Ali pass on that easily, and first takes him on a journey that falls in line with the lilting, effervescent pace of the whole film. Whisking the audience away to a cartoonishly-animated world, it is one of several scenes (including one hilarious, flamboyant sketch depicting the French opinion of suburban American family life) that guides the film into the absurd.
He does not go gently into the night, and in the end, Nasser-Ali is reunited with his love, Irane, on the streets of Tehran in a scene straight out of Love in the Time of Cholera. Irane (Golshifteh Farahani) pretends not to remember him, and Nasser-Ali's wrenching pain reminds us once more that what the writers' think of life is that love is the key to all the rest of our experience. Without it a violin's strings ring untrue, death becomes a respite, and the world a tortuous boor.
Chicken With Plums is a remarkable accomplishment that will stick in your mind, constantly reminding you to seize the sigh that is life, or else let it pass you by.