By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com April 24, 2012 at 10:40AM
It can be difficult to shift from animation to live-action direction; the processes are very different, and even an accomplished animation helmer can sometimes be undone once they're faced with cameras, actors and the breakneck schedule of a feature film shoot, as opposed to the multi-year process that produces a feature cartoon. Some have managed it, Tim Burton being the most obvious example (at first, anyway...) and Pixar dons Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton are both hoping to make the leap in the next few months. It's got to be even harder to go from working in graphic novels, to animation, to live-action, but that's been the path for Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud in the last few years.
Satrapi is the Iranian-born author of "Persepolis," the best-selling, award-winning graphic novel that was adapted in 2007 into the Oscar-nominated animated film of the same name, on which Satrapi shared directing duties with Paronnaud, another well-known figure in the French comic book world. The film was an international success, and now they've taken on another of Satrapi's printed works, this time dipping their toe into live-action waters and assembling an all-star European cast including Mathieu Amalric, Isabella Rosselini, Maria de Medeiros and Edouard Baer, for "Chicken With Plums," which premieres in Venice tonight. Can they match the success of their cinematic debut or will they end up coming unstuck?
A little from column A, a little from column B; the pair demonstrate real promise in the live-action world, but there's also a lot that doesn't work in their new film. As in the book, which is faithfully adapted, the story is about Satrapi's maternal uncle Nasser Ali (Amalric), a talented violinist who takes to his bed for eight days with the intention of dying after his prized violin is destroyed by his wife (de Medeiros). As the days go by and Nasser ekes closer to the end, scenes from his past, present and future are shown, revealing the tragic story behind his quest to bring an end to his life.
It's immediately apparent that Satrapi and Paronnaud haven't left the graphic novel source material too far behind; the credits are animated, as is one sequence later in the film, while establishing shots are frequently painted backdrops. And the film has a heavily-stylized storybook look throughout thanks to some truly gorgeous sets by Udo Kramer, a pretty violin-led score by "Persepolis" composer Olivier Bernet, and top-flight lensing by rising star Christophe Beaucarne ("Coco Avant Chanel," "Outside The Law"), which mostly works in the fable-ish tale's favor. The digressive nature and tricksy, effects-aided camerawork recall Jean-Pierre Jeunet's recent films, which sometimes works, but mostly doesn't as the frequent cut-aways and dips into direct address come off as a big-screen sitcom more than anything else.
And like those films, your reaction to the film may depend on your tolerance for whimsy. The kids-say-the-cutest-things digressions, leaps into the future, fairy tale-like incidental characters (principally the two played by Jamel Debouzze) and magic realism may enchant certain audience members (it should play well to what we'll term the "Chocolat" crowd), but to us it simply felt like padding, particularly a pandering English-language fake sitcom, complete with laughter track, starring the adult version of Nasser's unruly son who emigrates to the U.S. The thing is, there's not enough dramatic material to sustain the full 90 minutes, and when mixed with the episodic, almost portmanteau-like structure, it slows the pace down to a crawl.
Perhaps more crucially, the central love story isn't quite interesting enough and is far too familiar to be particularly moving, and 90% of it is told in the film's final reel, which is a bit late in the game. The reveal's been held for so long that it can't help but underwhelm, while "Body of Lies" star Golshifteh Farahani is never compelling enough as the object of Nasser's affections, despite Amalric giving his all. As usual, the actor's doing sterling work, made strangely unrecognizable by a brush-like mustache, and continually bulging eyes (Hollywood, if you ever go back to the Super Mario well, we may have found your new leading man...). The film's strongest turn comes from Maria de Medeiros as Nasser's wife Faringuisse, managing to play both stern matriarch and quietly pining girl in never-to-be-requited-love simultaneously. Few others in the cast make an impression, with Isabella Rossellini's cameo as Nasser's mother failing to register, and French comic star Edouard Baer stuck rather between two stools and hampered by heavy make-up, as Azrael, the angel of death.
There's another issue with the casting in general. We don't want to use the term Persianface exactly, but something doesn't quite ring right about the the casting of non-Arabic actors in Middle Eastern roles. It's not like Hollywood hasn't been pulling the same trick for years, and "Persepolis" managed to skip round the question by only using voices, but something feels a little sour here. It may have been the filmmakers' intention to play down the Persian/Iranian aspects to universalize the story -- from those storybook sets, it might as well be set in Oz -- but untethering it to its cultural background rings false in a way that wasn't true of the source material. There are pleasures to be found in "Chicken with Plums" to be certain, but we'd hope for something a little more satisfying next time out from the directing team. [C-]