Filmmakers Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud are ruthless. In Chicken with Plums, the co-directors’ gorgeous live action follow-up to their 2007 acclaimed animated film Persepolis, they kill off their male lead and bury him by the 17-minute mark. Don’t fret though; famed violinist Nasser Ali Khan (Mathieu Amalric) wanted to die—he wills it so, taking to his bed rather than the noose, the bullet or the blade. This lush, much more playful than you’d expect film’s momentum is driven by a single question: Why did he want to leave this world?
The setting is Tehran, mostly in 1958, although with flashbacks and a pair of bittersweet flash forwards. The filmmakers double back to visit the eight days between Nasser Ali’s decision and his actual death, structuring the film as both a countdown and inquiry. Nasser Ali shuns food and drink, receives some visitors and lets 40 or so years worth of memories wash over him. He’s like Proust’s narrator except he’s languishing with intent to die.
(READ: TIME on Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, the book)
His stated reason for suicide by torpor is that he can’t make music anymore; his violin is broken and even a Stradivarius he travels miles to acquire doesn’t sound right. But other reasons for Nasser Ali’s depression begin to pile up as the filmmakers visit his memories day by day. In elementary school, his brother Abdi (a character from Persepolis) is applauded while Nasser Ali is literally booed. His shrewish math teacher wife, Faringuisse (Maria de Medeiros, exquisitely prim) regularly reminds him that he should be supporting their family, instead of her; she’d rather not work. She greets his pronouncement “I’ve decided to die” with not even a raised eyebrow, just a housekeeping question about their little boy, who is around four years-old. “And where is Cyrus?” she asks.
No one seems to value him, or at least in the way he wants to be valued, and he places little value on his family in turn. Nasser Ali tries to impart some important wisdom about art and life to his children, only to be greeted by a loud fart from Cyrus. He favors his daughter Lili (played as an adult by an amusingly theatrical Chiara Mastroianni) because she reminds him of himself. He has only ever tolerated Faringuisse—his mother, played by Isabella Rossellini, pushed him into the marriage—but she loved him once, and as the days drag on, she too becomes a sympathetic figure. Just about everyone behaves badly, yet the characters are handled with such compassion and humor that none of them come across as bad people.
(SEE: Where TIME’s Richard Corliss put the film version of Persepolis on his 2007 Top 10)
Chicken with Plums is well-acted across the board, but it is Amalric’s movie. A celebrated French actor known best in America for his starring role in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Amalric has a great face for moping, all sad, watery brown eyes and downturned mouth; fat chance of winning anything but a rueful smile from Nasser Ali. Yet this story of a selfish grump and how he got that way is utterly engaging, almost as much so as the tale told in Persepolis of Satrapi’s exile from her beloved Iran.
This second film, which premiered at last year’s Venice Film Festival and also played Toronto and other film festivals, met with mixed responses from some who felt it didn’t live up to Persepolis. Certainly it presents a contrast. Persepolis is a black-and-white animated film adapted from Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel (she’s the Iranian Alison Bechdel) and told through multiple languages, including Persian and French. The live action Chicken with Plums, also adapted from a Satrapi graphic novel, is acted entirely in French and shot in Germany on a sound stage. It’s inspired by her family, but it’s fiction. (In production notes, Satrapi says she was captivated by a photograph of one of her great uncles, who died before her time, and apparently, his. He was a musician with romantic eyes, but this is his story only as she imagined it.) Chicken with Plums includes the political—the lost love who haunts Nasser Ali’s memories is an exotic beauty pointedly named Irâne (that’s like being named America) played by the dazzling Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani—but less blatantly so than Persepolis.
But in terms of its central themes of abandonment and art as refuge and indeed, lifesaver—when Nasser Ali’s youthful heart is broken, his ability to express his pain through his violin grows exponentially—Chicken with Plums dovetails neatly with Persepolis. And though those of us who were intoxicated by Satrapi and Paronnaud’s animation may have been disappointed to hear their second joint effort was live action, they handle film almost as if it were a canvas. It’s loaded with atmospherics (smoke, snow, magic dust) and artistic nods like painted miniatures of Tehran and other Iranian locales for establishing shots. The sumptuous visuals are often framed as if they were panels in a graphic novel, reminders of Chicken with Plums’ origins, and a few sequences are actually animated, but Satrapi and Paronnaud take advantage of the different freedoms of live action. They spin the wheel in terms of genre, shifting from parodies of sitcoms to stylized melodrama (the filmmakers cite Douglas Sirk as an influence). The imposing angel of death, Azraël (Edouard Baer), who also serves as the sly narrator, could have stumbled out of a very dark Marvel comic. You have no idea what’s coming next, except that it will be wildly creative and beautiful. These two know how to mix up a very unusual and successful cinematic recipe.
READ: What TIME’s James Poniewozik’s reaction was when he got around to seeing Persepolis in 2009