Marjane Satrapi’s “Poulet aux Prunes” (“Chicken with Plums”) is the French-Iranian filmmaker’s live-action adaptation of her namesake graphic novel. Co-directing once more with Vincent Paronnaud, who also worked on the 2007 film adaptation of “Persepolis,” Satrapi creates a fairly-tale 1950s Tehran as the backdrop for the story of Nasser Ali, a violinist (Satrapi’s uncle, or so she claims) who resolves to die after his instrument is smashed to pieces by his nagging wife.
Strictly speaking, the film covers the last eight days in Nasser Ali’s life, though the mischievous narrator, Azrael, angel of death, is rather loose with chronology and grants us generous (and often fanciful) extended looks into the future and the past.
Satrapi has a fine cast at her disposal, including the charmingly neurotic Mathieu Amalric (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” “On tour”) as the melancholy musician, the ravishing Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani (“About Elly”) as his one great love, a clockmaker’s daughter, Maria de Medeiros (“The Saddest Music in the World”) as the violin-totaling wife, and a memorable cameo by Isabella Rossellini as Nasser Ali’s proud and graceful mother.
The film generously intersperses animated sequences, backgrounds and other elements, mostly in the service of flash-backs, flash-forwards or dream sequences, which adds a blithely surreal flavor to the film. But while the overlay of fantastical and comical elements to the main melodramatic storyline are initially successful—such as the hilarious American reality-TV sketch that describes the future life of Nasser Ali’s son—these tricks soon grow tiresome, as it feels as though Satrapi doesn’t have enough faith in herself as a director to keep us entertained without barraging us with a rainbow of visual goodies and comic relief.
In trying to be quirky and fantasy-filled, the film overreaches itself. Much of it smacks of the treacle-smeared zaniness of films like “Amelie” and “Moulin Rouge.” And while this certainly doesn’t ruin the film, it does render its moments of catharsis somewhat hollow. If Satrapi (and Paronnaud) had spent nearly as much time developing the characters as they have perfecting a visual style, they could have made a great film instead of an average one.