Over an eight day period, Nasser-Ali Khan will become the anti-Scherezade. As he wills himself to die, stories from his past, narrated by the Angel of Death, will explain how the musician reached such a state of profound melancholy. Love and death become intimately intertwined in Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud’s Chicken with Plums (trailer here), their fantastical but sophisticated live-action follow-up to the rightly acclaimed Persepolis, which screened at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival and will also unspool today at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival.
Khan is widely regarded as the greatest Iranian violinist of his generation, but he has stopped playing. On the surface, his silence appears to be the fault of his wife Faringuisse, who destroyed his prized violin in one of their frequent squabbles. However, his depression is rooted in an elegantly tragic tale of love denied.
Technically proficient but never impassioned, Khan’s music took on uncommon richness after he was forbidden from seeing his true love Irâne, the traditional clockmaker’s daughter. Music never has been considered a stable profession by protective fathers. As Khan’s reputation rises, he acquiesces to his controlling mother’s wishes and marries Faringuisse. For him, it is a loveless union. For her, it is a marriage based on unrequited love.
Frankly, Khan is a crummy husband and a negligent father, but it is difficult to condemn him after witnessing his compounded heartache. Mathieu Amalric, with his big sad eyes, is perfectly cast as the exquisitely sensitive jerkweed. Viewers will sympathize with him, even as they shake their heads at his casual cruelty to Faringuisse. Likewise only more so, Maria de Medeiros (Bruce Willis’s girlfriend in Pulp Fiction) explodes the harpy exterior of his nagging wife, revealing the pain and vulnerability of Faringuisse.
Set in the late 1950’s pre-Shah, Western-leaning Iran, Satrapi and Paronnaud’s fable of star-crossed love would seem to hold limited political ramifications. However, it is not an accident Khan’s forbidden love is named Irâne (as they confirmed in a post-screening Q&A). That she is played by Golshifteh Farahani is also clearly significant. The internationally acclaimed actress was barred from returning to Iran after (tastefully) posing nude in a French magazine to protest the Islamist regime’s misogynist policies. A radiantly beautiful woman, she also invests her character (and the film) with a graceful sadness.