From Persepolis to Chicken with Plums: Marjane Satrapi in Living Color

Maria de Medeiros and Mathieu Amalric in ‘Chicken with Plums’/Photo © Patricia Khan, Sony Pictures Classics
Maria de Medeiros and Mathieu Amalric in ‘Chicken with Plums’/Photo © Patricia Khan, Sony Pictures Classics

There is no question that graphic novels are now very much part of the lexicon of contemporary literature. Beginning with Art Spiegelman’s Maus and coming up through Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Are You My Mother?, these works are taught in classrooms and seriously reviewed. But adaptation into film has not mirrored the popularity of these novels -- and I mean novels, not comic books. We’re all well aware of the Batman, Spider-Man and Hulk franchises.

So it was immensely gratifying that as part of the PEN week of events early in May, MOMA, in collaboration with PEN, presented screenings of two films based on Marjane Satrapi’s innovative and politically incisive graphic novels: "Persepolis" (2007) and "Chicken with Plums" (2011).

Before the "Chicken with Plums" screening, Satrapi was interviewed by Francoise Mouly, art director of The New Yorker who happens to be married to Art Spiegelman. Ironically, Satrapi said that she started working in the genre because of Spiegelman. Although she had grown up in Iran with Tin Tin and Asterix, it was not until she was twenty-four and read Maus that she had a revelation about wanting to draw and to write in a way that could only come together in the graphic novel. Thus the origin of Persepolis — her way of telling the world what had happened in Iran.

The movie "Persepolis" was a direct adaptation of the graphic novel — animated in black and white with Satrapi drawing each cel by hand.  “Hand drawn is never dated — it is always beautiful,” she said.

Then why did she choose, in this most recent film, to switch to another medium? Her answer: “If you make one film, then everyone gives you money to do the same thing. But I wanted to do something new.” The challenge she took on was to make a live-action movie from her second graphic novel, Chicken with Plums.

Set twenty years before the revolution, "Plums" takes place in 1958 Iran, where the society is open, the arts are revered, and romantic love is a real possibility. The story is based on the life of Satrapi’s uncle, a celebrated musician, who, in the film, spends seven days waiting for his death and revisiting his life. The film is color drenched and filled with emotion, whimsy, and humor. Satrapi and her co-director/co-writer (as he was on "Persepolis") Vincent Paronnaud create a tale dotted with dreamscapes, including an homage to love at first sight, a cartoonish satire of American life, and many nuanced scenes featuring surreal and sometimes hilarious moments. At times the camera caresses small acts like lighting a cigarette, at others there is the frenetic action of a Roadrunner cartoon.

What comes to mind most often to one who is familiar with the images on Satrapi’s pages is how remarkably appropriate and creatively fulfilling is this translation to a new medium. Her original vision is maintained but richly transformed. Not a little of  the credit is due to a remarkable cast including Mathieu Amalric as Nasser-Ali, Maria de Medeiros as his prickly wife Faringuisse and Isabella Rossellini as his chain-smoking mother, Parvine. And for those who are in pursuit of trivia, Chiara Mastroianni, who was the voice of Marjane in "Persepolis," plays the adult daughter of Nasser-Ali here in flashforward moments.

In Satrapi’s own estimation, it takes her three years to complete a project and at forty-one she expects to complete ten more projects in thirty more years of work ahead of her. I will be eagerly waiting to see what she does next.