Chicken with Plums: the snowy side of Tehran

“Sometimes,” says Marjane Satrapi, “we become completely angry! He feels like hitting me. I feel like hitting him. We are like two angry dogs. But after one hour, it is finished.”

Satrapi is talking about working with fellow graphic novelist-turned-director Vincent Paronnaud on Chicken with Plums, a film that shows a little-known side of Tehran. Set in the 1950s, it depicts a city with a thriving cafe culture, elegant old buildings and shops — a place made to look picture-postcard pretty by the snow that falls so often. This may be a live action movie — unlike the duo’s previous work, the 2007 blockbuster animation Persepolis — but it conjures up Tehran in a magical, dream-like fashion.

Satrapi and Paronnaud make an engaging double act. Both are established comic book artists who have made the leap into movies. Iranian-born Satrapi is an extrovert, full of humour. Paronnaud, a Frenchman, is quietly sardonic, sharply dressed, bearded and rake-thin. He nods placidly in agreement with Satrapi’s description of their relationship, explaining that the 46-day shoot was “very stressful”.

Satrapi was a fan of Paronnaud’s comic book work (created under the nom de plume Winshluss) long before she met him. “It’s extremely nihilistic, extremely dark,” she says of Pinocchio, Smart Monkey and Monsieur Ferraille. However, when they first met at a studio in Paris, they took an intense dislike to one another. “I thought, ‘He’s a fucking asshole’, and he thought, ‘This woman is crazy,'” recalls Satrapi. After several months, they had a coffee together and “started talking about geopolitics. We agreed on everything and became friends.”

Caught up in memories

Like Persepolis, Chicken with Plums is rooted in Satrapi’s family history. This time, however, it does not have an overtly political dimension. Loosely inspired by Satrapi’s uncle, it tells the story of a brilliant violinist (played by Mathieu Amalric) who is so dismayed about his violin breaking — and about the memory of a lost sweetheart — that he takes to his bed. His devoted wife tries to rouse him by cooking his favourite meals, but he is too caught up in his memories to budge.

The storytelling has a determinedly whimsical dimension. There are moments of animation, scenes featuring the grim reaper and one very strange American interlude. Although undeniably humorous, Persepolis was about a childhood and an adolescence blighted by oppression, war, revolution and exile. Chicken with Plums, expected to be released in the UK later this year, following premieres at the London and Venice film festivals, is more of an exercise in nostalgia. It dwells on a period just before Satrapi herself was born: an era when the Ayatollah and the Shah didn’t cast shadows over all aspects of Iranian life.

Like every Iranian film-maker, Satrapi is frequently asked about such matters as the 2010 imprisonment of influential film-maker Jafar Panahi in Tehran, the collapse of the green revolution, and the alleged irregularities at the 2009 elections that saw President Ahmadinejad hold on to power. She is surprisingly circumspect in her answers.

Although she appeared two years ago at the European parliament to protest about the way election victory was wrested from opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, she now parries questions about the country’s politics. “I was extremely moved and extremely interested,” Satrapi says of the green revolution, but points out that she herself left Iran in 1994, and hasn’t visited the country in five years. “The information I have about Iran is second hand.”

Avoiding politics

She now lives in Paris, and felt she simply didn’t have the right to present herself as a cheerleader for street protests in which people were being shot. “It’s impossible. I can do it if I am there. I go out on the street and maybe I will receive a bullet like them, but I cannot sit in Paris and say to people, ‘Just express yourself.'”

In fact, Satrapi remains fiercely sceptical about politicians, and about sloganeering on behalf of any ideology. This was partly what spurred her to make Chicken with Plums. “I thought to myself, maybe more than any slogan or political act, maybe saying that in this country about which you have so many prejudices — just know that in 1958 a man died for the love of a woman.”

Satrapi believes “lack of poetry and imagination” is what distorts people’s lives; Chicken with Plums is intended as a “celebration of beauty”. In tone, it is certainly very different from the Iranian films we are used to seeing in the west. “There are things that I love in Iranian cinema and things that I don’t,” she says. “In Iranian cinema, you have to use metaphor because you are living under a dictatorship. This is not my case.”

She cites comedies such as The Shop Around the Corner, directed by German-born Ernst Lubitsch in 1940 (he recreated eastern Europe on a Hollywood sound stage), as an inspiration for her own studio-based attempts at portraying the lost Tehran. “Of course, it is a created city, but at the same time there is documentation. If you look at photos, the Tehran of the 50s looks a lot like that.”

As for the cutesy scenes in which kids play as the snow falls around them, Satrapi is quick to refute that this is her making the cinematic equivalent of a snow globe. “Tehran is very high up in altitude,” she says, taking issue with any suggestion that she has used undue poetic licence. “So it really, really snows.” —

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