The following is the script of my introduction to Poulet aux prunes (Chicken with Plums), a selection at the University of Rochester’s 2015-2016 Tournées Film Festival, which showcases French and Francophone films.
People have tried to silence Marjane Satrapi. From her moralistic teachers in Lycée Français, a French high school in her hometown of Tehran, Iran, to the Muslim fundamentalist regime that deposed the Shah monarchy in the 1979 Iranian Revolution, individuals and forces both at home and abroad have tried to contain and suppress Satrapi’s revolutionary voice. They have failed. Beginning with ink before expanding to the silver screen, Satrapi’s career, which was launched in 2003 with the publication of her autobiographical, multi-volume graphic novel Persepolis, has gained widespread acclaim, an Oscar nomination, and a reputation as a vehicle for ardent political commentary and exuberant self-expression. Today’s Poulet aux prunes fits snugly into her body of work. Though ostensibly only a fairy tale—“only” being a misleading adverb, perhaps, given how deftly the film maneuvers between mirth and melancholy—the film comes into sharpest focus when contextualized within Satrapi’s past experiences. It is a film that pulses with life – both hers and its own as an aesthetic object – painting fantasy with the brush of history.
The formative years of Satrapi’s life have, to say the least, been turbulent. Born to middle-class parents, she was thrust at an early age into the political maelstrom of 1970s Iran. Angry picketers storming the streets of Tehran were among her earliest memories, and soon after, the violent regime change that would result in a radical shift in the life she had known up until that point. Though Satrapi and her family were dissenters of the former Shah, life under the revolutionary leadership proved even more oppressive than the original monarchy had ever been. Neighbors and loved ones, suspected of foul play against the government, were arrested and even executed. Among the victims was Satrapi’s uncle Anoosh, whom she had come to consider her hero. Motivated by anger at her uncle’s death, she began acting out against local authorities, back-talking her teachers and challenging the fundamentalist ideologies they sought to impart to students. In direct opposition to the anti-Western sentiments of her immediate environment, she wore Nike, rocked to the Iron Maiden, and sported a Michael Jackson pin outside a jacket with “Punk is Not Ded” blazoned across the back.
As a result of these actions, Satrapi’s parents feared for their daughter’s life, and so they sent her to the less socially restricted Vienna to continue her studies. There, she sustained her rebellious streak, quickly earning the ire of both her teachers and her housemates, at the same time falling in with a crowd of punks and anarchists. She tumbled into and out of love, used drugs, and ended up on the streets for two months. After a close brush with death by pneumonia, Satrapi returned to Tehran, but the transition was immensely challenging. She entered a period of depression, from which she emerged only after surviving an overdose of pills and subsequently taking it as a sign that she was meant to live. Back on her feet, Satrapi became involved in her studies at a local university, trying to readjust to life behind a veil. During this time, she continued to skirt around the law, attending illegal parties where she could wear Western-style clothes and literally let her hair down. Patriarchy, too, experienced Satrapi’s spirited resistance, as when she criticized her university’s double standard of insisting that female students dress modestly to avoid tempting their male peers, but not vice versa. This vocal moment earned her both her grandmother’s pride and a reprimand from the Islamic Commission, and it is this kind of radical candor that would come to define her work as a socially engaged artist.
And it is as an artist that Satrapi is known today. Specializing in graphic novels and illustrations for children’s books, Satrapi has in recent years brought her expertise to the world of cinema. The results have been nothing less than exhilarating. Persepolis, the 2007 screen adaptation of her autobiography that she co-directed with comic artist Vincent Paronnaud, is one of the most visually striking films in recent memory. Composed of a distinctive style of animation that has been compared to shadow theater and German Expressionism, the film experiments with light, shade, and shape, at times feeling like a children’s pop-up book come to life, at others simply like a cubist explosion of visual energy. There is a playful sensibility to the images, which makes the heaviness and anger of the story come as a surprise. Bodies fall alongside tears, and the ravages of war are presented with uncompromising clarity, in this sense making Persepolis an unofficial companion to Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir, another film that tells a personal, wartime tale through animation. Contrary to being jarring, however, this juxtaposition of pathos and play creates a uniquely compelling filmgoing experience. Inundated as we are by images of violence in mass media, our natural reaction is to grow increasingly numb to docu-realistic representations of war. Persepolis circumvents this experience by alienating war from our sense of the familiar, bypassing our complacency by having us look, as it were, through children’s eyes. Using animation, Persepolis enables us to see anew.
Poulet aux prunes is not animated—not entirely, anyway—but it employs a similar uniting of seeming opposites: on the one hand, an aesthetic commitment to whimsy and grand quixoticism, on the other hand, a narrative devotion to describing the deepest sorrow. Based on the life story of Satrapi’s great uncle, the film tells of a musician, Nessar-Ali, who resigns himself to death after his beloved violin is broken beyond repair. Willfully bedridden so that he can passively wait away his final days without undergoing the potentially painful process of active suicide, Nessar-Ali finds himself overcome by a tide of memories, hallucinations, and longing, to which the film grants us access. Set in a fantastical version of the Iranian past, Poulet aux prunes revolves around the mystery of Nessar-Ali’s decision: what was it about the violin that caused him to take such drastic measures? In its flashback structure and focus on an object of outsize thematic importance, Satrapi’s film resembles Citizen Kane, whose “Rosebud” fueled that story’s progression as much as the shattered instrument informs our search for answers in this one. Like Welles’ masterpiece, Poulet aux prunes enhances the journey with visual invention and poetic resonance, as when two lovers meet beneath a tree against a Technicolor sunset, or when a cloud of cigarette smoke drifts to miraculous heights without dissipating, driven to immortality by the sublime sounds of Nessar-Ali’s violin. Music has great moving power in Poulet aux prunes, both for us and the characters, and indeed, meditations on art’s meaning are central to the film. “It is through art that we can understand life,” a character says at one point. “Life is a breath, life is a sigh. It is this sigh that you must seize.” Satrapi’s life has been one-of-a-kind, tumultuous, astonishing. Through Persepolis and Poulet aux prunes, she has seized it for us, and we understand both her and ourselves the better for it.
And now, I present to you Poulet aux prunes. Please enjoy the film.