Paronnaud and Satrapi came into the public consciousness through an acclaimed animated film in Persepolis (France/USA 2007), something I had no interest in watching because I generally have no interest in animation. However, they followed up that success by surprisingly moving into live action with a strange and inventive dark comedy that did not meet with the same acclaim but got enough that it sounded at least vaguely promising.
However, it turns out that, while the film is far from bad, its empty pretensions overtake the playful inventiveness of the narrative. Those pretensions are the part of the film that received the most attention, and resulted in the decidedly mixed response, with some considering them ingenious while others, like myself, concluded that they were, as I said, empty pretensions.
The film tells a convoluted story in an interesting, unusual way. It tells the tale of the life of Nasser-Ali Kahn, the world’s greatest violinist, whose music is fueled by his lost love, Iran, even as he marries and has children with another woman. The film opens as he attempts to find a new violin, his previous violin having been broken, though he will not say by whom. He is unable to find a new violin that he is pleased with, even after a special trip to a foreign city to buy a Stradivarius from a strange, seemingly magical, opium-filled shop owner. After that, he determines that he must die, and so we get first a scene of his funeral and then daily flashbacks of his life story as well as a bizarre sequence where Death comes to meet with him, telling him a strange story and what to expect for the future. The narrative is actually rather interesting and compelling, and it’s a shame that Paronnaud and Satrapi undo their own script work with their work as directors.
The problem is that there is no real meaning to this story, which leaves us with an empty story, and anyone who knows how I think about film knows that I consider pointless storytelling to be a cardinal sin in filmmaking. It’s a sin of which this film is eminently guilty, as there is no unifying theme that ties together even the majority of the film, let alone nearly all of it, as it should be. One could argue that the film is about the connection between pain and art, but then the entire sequence about his death becomes irrelevant and useless. One could say that it’s a simple film about the pain of a lost love, but then everything involving Kahn’s wife is irrelevant and useless. There are a number of themes that tie together a few parts of the film, but nothing unifies everything, which leaves the film as an empty narrative, something a film simply cannot be.
Visually, the film is filled with a mixture of traditional film, animation, and CGI, often using blank black backgrounds combined with brightly-lit foregrounds. However, the animation is rather silly-looking and looks so much like South Park as to seem wholly unoriginal and the extreme overuse of CGI and special effects really turns the film into a cartoonish caricature of filmmaking. While the film certainly has a unique look, it’s difficult to figure out the reason for that look or see how it enhances anything about the film. In addition, the look is unique but not particularly interesting. The directors and cinematographer Christophe Beaucame seem interested in a look with nothing behind it, another example of empty pretension just like the film’s somewhat interesting narrative structure.
The acting in the film was overall rather uneven. Mathieu Amalric is rather comically over-the-top in his lead performance as the titular violinist, and I find it difficult to tell whether it was intentional for a film that moves between comedy and very serious, dark material. Maria de Medeiros, playing his put-upon wife, is also over-the-top at times, but it’s more obvious that she is only over-the-top for certain comedic scenes and the rest of the time is very credible and powerful. The intention of her performance is more clear than Amalric’s, and so it appears totally credible. Nobody else gets enough screen time or characterization to have a really noticeable performance one way or another.
Overall, this film is not very good. It’s an empty narrative with pretentious but not particularly interesting visuals wasting an interesting narrative structure. It’s not really worth the time it takes to watch, and it’s a shame because the filmmakers clearly have a nice narrative sense that could be put to good use somewhere. Let’s hope that they rein themselves in next time, because then it might work.