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19 February 2014

Poulet aux Prunes (2011)

2011
Chicken with Plums
Directed by: Vincente Paronnaud, Marjane Satrapi
Music: Olivier Bernet
Starring: Isabella Rossellini, Maria de Medeiros, 
Golshifteh Farahani, Mathieu Amalric, Jamel Debbouze, 
Chiara Mastroianni, Edouard Baer, Éric Caravaca
I have watched, and liked, Persepolis. Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical tale of growing up during the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution, and her subsequent banishment to Vienna by her concerned parents, found a voice as a graphic novel. She later filmed it with the help of Vincente Paronnaud, who also helped her write its screenplay. It was an animated film that was both humorous and dark at the same time, and showed what it meant to be a people who, though they had a homeland, could never return there. So when I heard about her second film, Poulet aux Prunes, I was intrigued - by the title and the theme. Of a man who, having lost his beloved violin, decides he is going to die after eight days, and confines himself to bed until then. At the time, I had no idea that it was Satrapi's second film. Quite independently of my wanting to watch it, my husband had put it on our Netflix queue and it showed up last month.  

Yeki boud. Yeki naboud. This is how all Persian tales begin. Or so says the narrator. There was someone. There was no one...
 
In the fall of 1958, Nasser Ali Khan (Mathieu Amalric) is in Teheran, searching for a violin. On his way back from the music shop, he runs into a woman of his acquaintance, Irâne, and is dejected when she doesn't seem to recognise him. At home, the new violin doesn't quite meet his expectations. Furious with the shopkeeper for 'cheating him', he returns the violin.
 
The next day, he meets his brother Abdi (Éric Caravaca), who is an activist in the Iranian Communist Party. As Abdi pontificates about the villainous ways of the Americans and English, he notices that Nasser Ali is distraught. His violin was broken, Nasser Ali says, and he can't find a good replacement. He will never play again. His brother consoles him. Last month, while he was in Rasht, he met an old friend who had a Stradivarius. Perhaps Nasser Ali could go take a look?
Of course. So Nasser Ali decides to go to Rasht the next day. His wife is not too pleased. She has to go to work, and who will take care of their son? (Their daughter will be at school.) If he wants to go to Rasht, she says, well, he can take the boy with him. An argument springs up - if he worked and provided for his family, she says, she could stay home and look after the kids. Well, it is her fault, he responds. Soon the argument escalates, and the two children, used to the strife, quietly leave the dinner table. 
The next day, however, Nasser Ali and his son are on the long journey to Rasht. Not being used to taking care of a little child, Nasser Ali is overwrought by the time he gets to journey's end. (The other passengers on the bus are rather relieved when they get out.) Houshang (Jamal Debouzze) has an Alladin's cave of a shop and is a genial charlatan not beyond trying to make a quick buck. He offers Nasser Ali 'the biggest diamond in the world', furs, saffron, even magic wands - and opium. But Nasser has come for the violin, and that is all that he wants.  (But he takes advantage of a little opium in milk, to 'calm' his little boy.)  
The violin, claims Houshang, is a 'marvel of marvels', and it belonged to that 'master of masters', Mozart. And because Nasser Ali's music makes him weep, and because he is the brother of a friend, he will give the violin away - for a mere 1000 toumans. Why, he paid 1,049 toumans for it. Nasser Ali has only 700 toumans. Oh? Well, that will do. So Nasser Ali is now the proud possessor of Mozart's own violin, his little boy is still fast asleep, and soon, he and his son are on their way back to Teheran. 

When they reach home the next night. Nasser Ali desperately wants to play his new violin, but he forces himself to wait until the following morning. Then, he gets a professional shave, wears his best suit, drops his son off at the neighbour's, and...
But it's just not the same. 
 
And since no violin will ever give him the pleasure of playing again, Nasser Ali decides to die. He considers different ways of committing suicide. 
 
Not one of them is appealing. So he finally decides to die with dignity, to wait for Death to claim him. And so it happens, eight days later, that Nasser Ali Khan, the best violinist of his times, is buried next to his mother. 

Eight days. Eight days in which Nasser Ali took to his bed, and allowed his life to flash before his eyes. Eight days in which his beleagured wife, Faranguisse (Maria de Medeiros) is forced to accept that her husband whom she has loved from the time she was a mere child, has never loved her. Eight days in which Nasser Ali pondered his life - and his death. 

Yeki boud, yeki naboud. All Persian tales begin that way. There was someone, there was no one. And so we get to hear the sad story of Nasser Ali Khan, the premier violinist of his age. 

On the first day, Faranguisse comes back home to find Nasser Ali in bed (waiting to die). She is exasperated that he has left his son with the neighbour's and annoyed that he later gives his daughter leave to go play when she had told the child to do her homework. Nasser Ali has never been a good father, though he tried his best to play that role.

The next day, Faranguisse is concerned enough to call her brother-in-law. Abdi is conscientious enough to visit, though he has nothing in common with his brother. Abdi was always the 'good' child; Nasser Ali, the 'bad' one. He loves his brother, however, and makes an attempt to understand him. He also tries to remind Nasser Ali of his responsibilities to his wife and children. It does not end well, that conversation.
 
Abdi does promise to look after Faranguisee and the children, Lili (Enna Balland) and Cyrus (Mathis Bour), however.

By Day 3, Nasser Ali is bored.
So he calls his children to tell them his thoughts so they will remember them, and by extension, him. That doesn't quite end the way he expects, either. 

It is the fourth day, and Faranguisse is frightened. In a bid to reconcile with her husband, she makes his favourite dish, chicken with plums. Faranguisse has loved him ever since she was a child and had waited patiently for him to return from his concerts all over the world. Aided by Nasser Ali's mother (Isabella Rosellini) who wanted only to see her son married and settled, she marries Nasser Ali when she is 30 and he, 41. 
But love, as prophesied by Nasser Ali's mother had never come. There's a reason for that...

Nasser Ali had been a young musician studying the violin in Shiraz under Agha Mozaffar (Didier Flamand), the greatest musician of the day. Mozaffar thought Nasser Ali was technically perfect, but declared that his music lacked soul. Life is a dream, a sigh, says Mozaffar, and in order to put soul into music, he must seize that sigh. It is when Nasser Ali is wondering how he can seize a sigh, and where he is to find one that he meets Irâne (Golshifteh Farahani). 
It is love at first sight for Nasser Ali.

It is now the fifth day, and Nasser Ali feels closer to death. He remembers his mother's last days and how she pleaded with him to stop praying for her life, because it kept her from dying. He plays for her while her life's breath slips away. Now that he is waiting for death, he wonders if someone is praying for his life.

On the sixth day, he is finally visited by Azraël (Edouard Baer), the angel of death. 
After his initial scare, Nasser Ali is ready to talk. Especially when Azraël informs him that death by suicides have different rules in the afterlife. By the end of the day, Nasser Ali wonders whether it is too late to change his mind. Regretfully, it is. 

By the seventh day, everyone has given up hope, including the doctor. And Faranguisse is begging for forgiveness. In a fit of anger at having to be both provider and housewife, she had earlier done the unforgiveable. 
It is the eighth day, and Nasser Ali dreams of his Irâne; he remembers how he courted her, how she fell in love with him, how he had played his violin for her, how his initial infatuation had deepened into love - on both sides. Finally, he had asked her to marry him. 
Irâne is deliriously happy. Not so her father, whom Nasser Ali meets the next day. Faced with the prospect of his daughter marrying a penniless artist, Irâne's father refuses. Irâne, broken-hearted though she is, cannot, will not rebel against her father.
Nasser Ali is devastated, but Mozaffar is not - his pupil's music has finally found its soul. At last, he says, Nasser Ali has managed to seize the sigh. The love he has lost will be evident in every note he plays. He has no patience for Nasser Ali's heartbreak. But he gives him a violin - not just any violin, but his master's violin. He has nothing further to teach Nasser Ali. 
This is the violin that Faranguisse broke. This is the violin that he cannot replace.

Poulet aux Prunes is a story of love and loss. Unlike Persepolis which mourned the loss of a homeland and a way of life, Poulet aux Prunes  is about a man (Marjane Satrapi's great-uncle) who has lost the joy of living. Nasser Ali's heartbreak, and the complete lack of joy in his marriage, are brought to life by an impeccable Amalric. He is the lynchpin of this memoir of a man who, his beloved instrument broken by his wife, is ready to lie back and wait for death. 

The story, as narrated by Azraël, is in flashback after the initial few scenes. While the eight days follow each other in chronological order, the events that come to Nasser Ali's memory move from the detritus of his past to the future of his children to his melancholic present. While the scenes of Nasser Ali's and Irâne's love is set amidst picture-postcard views, their final scene is almost devastating in its denouement.

The story moves from drama to melodrama, from restraint to hyperbole, from fantasy (the animation sequence is brilliant) to the merely dreary, from the heights of romance to the depths of despair. The cinematography is brilliant, lighting up sets that range from the pop-up to looking like something out of a graphic novel, to little picture postcards. The film is certainly a visual delight.
The performances, without exceptions, were above average. Maria de Medeiros was brilliant as Faranguisse, Nasser Ali's unappreciated and unloved wife. Her bespectacled face, the slightly repressed expression, the frustration that wells up in anger, the hidden sorrow, the slight hopes that light up her face - it was a controlled performance. 
 
Isabella Rosellini, in a cameo, is also as beautiful as I remember her from her heyday, and is perfect as Nasser Ali's mother, who just wants her son to settle down. (She also resembles her mother, Ingrid Bergman to a startling degree.)
  
Olivier Bernet's music is beautiful. Very beautiful, and heart-stopping. Violin set pieces play a very important role in the film, obviously, and serve to emphasise the drama at several points. So what is it that left me feeling a little bit dissatisfied? One, the knowledge that the film decided to change the Iranian tar of the novel to a violin. Why? Seems rather unnecessary, considering the story line. Did they really need to westernise the story that much? Secondly, the whole flash-forward into the lives of his (adult) children was not only redundant, but also reduced some of the emotional intensity of the preceding scenes. While Lili's (a world-weary Chiara Mastroianni) portion was merely dreary, and injected a cynicism that was unnecessary, the adult Cyrus' (Christian Friedel) US-sojourn was rather over-the-top in the humour department, and came off as smug. It just did not fit in with the understated, and often black, humour of the rest of the film.
As episodes, they all stand alone; yes, every one of them, including the whimsical tale of the Angel of Death finding a victim Ashour in an unexpected place, the farcical episode of Socrates, and the engaging episode involving Sophia Loren (as a character). Put together, there is something lacking. It is like Satrapi and Paronnaud threaded together an episodic narrative, losing sight of the fact that the sum of those ingredients may not necessarily serve up a great dish. To take the food metaphor further, it was as if the dish has too many ingredients and then remained too long on the stove.   

And then, Irâne. The beautiful (beautiful!) Golshifteh Farahani is definitely given the short end of the stick. 
Apart from two fantastically staged scenes (which she chewed up), Irâne's character-arc is the weakest. I wish her romance with Nasser Ali had been given more screen time, so we could see what it was that drew her to him. (We are shown his attraction to her, not hers to him.) And why, when it came to the pinch, does she turn so weak. "I cannot do this to my father, it will kill him' seems a very strange thing to say, when the father is shown as extremely indulgent to his daughter, giving her everything she asks for. 

Her last scene with Nasser Ali, again, powerfully performed, is also a mystery. Why does she pretend not to recognise him? Just to set in motion a series of events that become the foundation of the film? It is a conceit that doesn't really work in hindsight. (I was too caught up in the scene when I first watched it. It is later that I'm thinking, 'Why? That makes no sense!')

In writing about her great-uncle, Satrapi possibly sacrifices the personal notes that underlined her debut (novel and) film Persepolis. Definitely, there is no urge to paint a picture of Nasser-Ali as a saint who suffers for his art (and heart). His unsuccessful love affair makes him behave in an extremely heartless manner towards his long-suffering wife, Faranguisse. While Abdi might talk of her as a domineering, controlling harridan, it is clear that Abdi's wife feels sorry for her sister-in-law.
Yet, it is that very objectivity that hampers the emotional investment that we should, but do not, feel for the protagonist. And oh, the title? It has absolutely nothing to do with the film, a fact that seems to have struck its makers after about three quarters of the film is over. Suddenly, there are two references to the dish within ten minutes. And that, is that. For people who have already watched Persepolis, it may be hard to avoid comparisons. The former is a far more satisfying film. Yet, I would still recommend giving this a watch, if only to catch the occasional flashes of brilliance in a good, not great, film. 

23 comments:

  1. Majid Majidi is gr8 among Iranian Directors.His wife n daughter too.I began to see his movies in 1995.He came to Cochin 2 yrs back.

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  2. Yes, and I like his films very much, but what on earth does that have to do with the review of a film that is made by someone else?

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  3. *grin*. That's honest, at least. :)

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  4. I stopped seeing movies after I saw a tremendous movie,Underground by Emir Kusturica(I dunno whether the spelling is correct).It was his debut movie-then I saw a documentary by him on Castro which he made earlier.Very disappointing like the leader.

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  5. After that I saw The Lemon Tree,the Israeli movie,last year.Entha sambhavam!

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  6. Hmm. As soon as I saw the title of this post, I thought (with glee) "Another Babette's Feast?" (yes, you can see how much I loved that). This looks very beautiful - Golshifteh Farahani and those street views and all - but it sounds far too sad for me. Perhaps I'll pass it up.

    By the way, I'm a little confused. So his wife breaks the violin on the 7th day (or the 8th) - and this was the violin which had been given to him by his master? But doesn't the film begin with him looking for a violin to replace the one that was broken - so he ends up with the 'Stradivarius' on Day 7/8? Or have I gotten lost somewhere?

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  7. Umm, it is not so much sad as ruminative.

    Or have I gotten lost somewhere?

    No. :( I thought She had done the unforgiveable made it clear that it was in the past. The violin she broke was the one that his Master had given him. It is when he realises that even the Stradivarious cannot replace it in his mind that he decides to die. The eight days follow one after the other, but his memories skitter all over the place. (In fact, even the events of the eight days come after he dies.) Have I cleared that up or muddied it still further? :(

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  8. Interesting review, though the film does sound like it has too many ingredients. I found the title more intriguing, wish it had something to do with the film. :)

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  9. Banno, thank you. I'd wanted to watch the movie because of the title too. :) And I found the premise very intriguing. Unfortunately, while good, the film did not live up to its promise - at least for me.

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  10. Oh, don't stop. Complaining, I mean. :) I think my problem was that I compared this to Persepolis, which, though darker in theme, was a far better film. This was not bad, only, as you say, the whole juxtaposition of events took some getting used to. Plus, I found I was not very invested in the characters. I mean, we're told that Nasser Ali is so in love with Irâne that he became a shell of a person after she left him. The problem, to me, was that I didn't see that, didn't get so involved in their story that I felt their pain.
    Yet, I would still say, it is worth watching.

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  11. I agree with the fact that Perepolis was a better film, but that was because it was autobiographical and sweeping. It encompassed a whole country's trials . This is set on a much smaller scale .


    Actually Irane is quite uninteresting as a person because you see her beauty only through Nasser Ali who is also a weak unlikeable man. She's a vapid woman who wants pretty dresses and wheedles it out of an indulgent father. She is free to fall in love with a penniless young violinist but not brave enough (and rightly so ) to disregard her father's wishes.
    The real women in the film are Faranguisse and Parvine . Faranguisse supports a useless husband and brings up her kids as well as she can. Parvine tells the useless son to stop praying for her.
    I found the narration okay. Each day brings a new train of thought and a new wandering point. There is no reason a story has to be connected. The connection is Nasser Ali. His thoughts are disconnected as are most peoples.
    Some interesting points about the movie is the photography , and use of camera angles to imitate a comic, the music which was just right. The little vignettes such as the disillusionment of Farzaneh when her dad shows the puppets, the little glimpses of Faranguisse standing outside Nasser Ali's room, Azrael the jovial angel of death.
    It has its good points, the problem is comparing it to Persepolis.
    Persepolis resonates with most people because it is autobiographical and real. You want to be part of it you want to know what happens to Marji, you see Iran the country.
    This one does not because the principal character is not likeable and does his best to stay that way. No redeeming features no sweeping generalizations dealing with a country and its people. One small man's small insgnificant life .
    Incidentally the english version of Poulet et Prunes was translated by Anjali Singh.

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  12. I didn't have a problem with the disconnect in the narrative; it just took some getting used to. My problem with this film was because I could not like Nasser Ali. It is to Amalric's credit that he made Nasser Ali so unlikable. Plus, I don't know why exactly, but the film left me with a feeling of dissatisfaction. I cannot quite put a finger on why.

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  13. Ah, okay. Enlightened. :-) Thank you!

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  14. At the risk of repeating myself. I will say what I always say, flaws or no flaws these films definitely have a story. I had heard and read about Persepolis but haven't seen it, and this one too seems to be good, okay perhaps it is good in parts but all the same there is a story. This review reminded me of a film I recently saw, quite a good story directed by Majid Majidi it is Baran, I quite liked that one too.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T5UGItdsqUI

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  15. :) My fault, because I always know precisely what I mean that I forget that it is sometimes not as clear to others.

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  16. Shilpi, there is definitely a story, and the movie is rather decent as well. Don't let my conditional enthusiasim turn you off from watching it. The performances are consistently top-class, especially Nasser Ali and Faranguisse, and there is a deep thread of (dark) humour that runs right through the film. Very watchable; just don't compare it to Persepolis.

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  17. Such a beautiful story. I love such films with all their flaws and all. So French like!
    A pity I missed it when it was released here.

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  18. It is definitely worth a watch, Harvey. If you can get your hands on it at a library or something, do watch it.

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  19. Ur wasting ur time reviewing mediocre films.Pls do a book on songs like Ganesh Anantharaman did.U hav a Mills n Boon language.

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  20. Ente blog-il thanne veno, maashe? And what the heck does 'mills-and-boon' language even mean?

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  21. it means peppy-a million copies will sell.book blogil venda to

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