Rather than the poignant, semiautobiographical tale of a young woman coming of age in Tehran during the Iranian revolution, Chicken With Plums, from Sony Pictures Classics, centers on a character ready to end his life. In 1958, violinist Nasser Ali Khan (Mathieu Amalric) loses his will to live after his harpy of a wife breaks his beloved instrument. He takes to his bed for days, waiting for death to arrive, as flashbacks reveal the details of his past.
Satrapi, 42, was inspired after seeing a picture of her late great-uncle. "He had a kind of melancholy," she said during an interview at a Beverly Hills hotel. "He had a sadness in his eyes. My mother said he was a great musician. He played in his garden and people would stop and listen on the street."
Although Satrapi and her two-time codirector maintain separate publishing careers, the prospect of bringing the sweetly sad story to the screen appealed to Paronnaud. "There is a kind of an admiration for each other's work," he said in a separate interview. "I am attracted to things that I can't do and are not my style. I am working with her because of the kind of stories that she tells that I wouldn't be able to tell."
The film features an impressive cast, including Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani, Maria de Medeiros, Isabella Rossellini, Jamel Debbouze, and Chiara Mastroianni, but it's Amalric, who earned rave reviews in Julian Schnabel's 2007 film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, who holds the screen in the lead role.
Satrapi said he was the only actor she considered for the part. "I called him and said, 'You are the only person with these eyes.' I always had the feeling he had this fever in his eyes, this fever in life. It was very important to create a whole world around this character. This is about the interior life of a man who locks himself in a room and remembers his life."
The highly stylized, soundstage-bound production - shot in Berlin in 2010 at the famed Studio Babelsberg - recalls the florid melodramas of Douglas Sirk, the German emigre who made such lush films in the 1950s as Magnificent Obsession and Written on the Wind, but there are touches of silent expressionist filmmaking too, and brief animated sequences during the title sequences and flashbacks.
The pair say they aspired to make a movie much like the set-bound Technicolor Hollywood films of the 1950s, which they both love. "This is kind of an homage to the movies we watched when we were younger," Paronnaud, 41, said.
Before starting production, Paronnaud made a short with friends to "understand the technical aspect of shooting."
They both realized it would be difficult for the actors to take direction from two people, Satrapi said, so Paronnaud worked closely with cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne while she focused on the cast.
"But if he makes a framing I don't like, I will tell him - not in front of everyone, of course," she said. "If he doesn't like the way I directed, he will tell me. Sometimes we feel like killing each other, but then we sleep and you forget it."
Chicken With Plums had its premier last year at the Venice Film Festival, and it has played stops on the circuit including Toronto; Pusan, South Korea; and Tokyo. Early reviews were largely kind; Roger Ebert called it a "grand, romantic life story about love, loss, regret, and the sadness evoked by a violin."
"I like to be sad once in a while," Satrapi said. "You need it for your equilibrium. At the moment in my life when I wrote the book, I had a lot of questions about life, love, and death, so I made a prediction of myself in this character."
In terms of filmic partnerships, Satrapi and Paronnaud said they were ready to move on and direct movies solo. Satrapi is at work on a movie, tentatively titled The Eleventh Laureate, about her late paternal grandmother, whom she described as "one of the nastiest people in the world."
Of striking out on her own filmmaking path, she said, "We have made these two films, but you know, sometimes you don't have the same inspiration at the same time."
Paronnaud agreed. "We need to take a breath of fresh air and get some breathing space so we can also remain friends," he said.