Opening Friday, the live-action film adaptation of Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel Chicken With Plums tells the story of Nasser-Ali Khan, a master violinist so heartbroken by his unattainable love, Irane, that he decides to stay in bed and wait for death to come and claim him. Codirected by Satrapi and French comic artist Vincent Paronnaud, it's an artfully rendered romanti-tragic fantasy full of dark humor and surreal tangents—think Woody Allen and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie, The City of Lost Children). But the story doubles as an allegory of lost homeland for Satrapi, whose debut, Persepolis, told of her upbringing in (and eventual flight to Paris from) Iran and its increasingly repressive regimes. During 2010's post-election uprising in Tehran, she says, "I was just in front of my computer crying day in and day out"—over the flight of democracy from Iran and her distant hope that it might one day return. During a rare break between cigarettes at her San Francisco hotel suite, the multitalented Satrapi ruminated on everything from the futility of war to Janet Jackson's "cute" nipple. Watch the trailer below, and then we'll proceed to the interview.
Mother Jones:Persepolis was mostly autobiographical. Chicken with Plums is mostly fictional. Which story was harder to tell?
Marjane Satrapi:Persepolis. I had to remember many things that were extremely painful. Seeing my grandmother, who is dead, even in animation, walking—it's really something. So from a psychological point of view it was much more difficult to make Persepolis. And it takes much longer. You have to be resistant.
MJ: In Chicken With Plums, the unattainable love of Nasser-Ali, your protagonist, is named Irane. Is that a reflection of your feelings toward your homeland?
MS: It is not by coincidence. In the '50s the whole of the democracy flew from my country because of the American-British coup d'état against [Mohammad] Mosaddegh. Irane is actually a real name; it's like being called France in France. It's an allegory—the thing that you wanted the most that is lost. And then we have a second layer that is actually very realistic: a guy who is depressed who decides to die. You don't have any notion of redemption. He does not like his kids at the beginning; he does not like them more at the end. Today, in all the films, all the parents they love their kids. But somebody has to explain to me where do they come from, all these miserable kids who later on will become miserable adults? So some kids are not loved by their parents. And you don't have good or bad people. Each person has his moment of glory. But that is a boring story. How to make it interesting is to have this person die at the beginning—so to be able to use the death to celebrate his life for 1 hour and 22 minutes.
MJ: Over the past few years, Iran has undergone all kinds of turmoil—notably the post-election protests. What was going through your mind at that time?
"Today, we don't talk about history. The past is two weeks ago, and the future is two weeks after."
MS: What was extremely interesting to me in this revolution was we had as many women as men—it was women and men hand-in-hand. And that shows a big change. When you say revolution when you have only men outside, you know that something is going wrong. I'm not like a hardcore feminist, but I think that one of the things that makes the society advanced is equality between men and women. If half of the society is oppressed by the other half, it's not fine. You cannot go towards democracy because you don't use half of your intellectual, scientific, artistic, whatever, forces. So it's an evolution that has happened in Iran. That gives me hope, because changes never come by the revolutions. Revolutions just spread blood. Evolution—this is something that changes in the long term. Because history is long term. But today, we don't talk about history. The past is two weeks ago, and the future is two weeks after.
MJ: Two minutes!
MS: Even two minutes. I mean, I have not seen one politician today that has a vision for the 10 coming years, for the 20 coming years. It's today we want to win the election. It's for today, for today, for today.
MJ: Speaking of elections, over the past six months our Republican presidential candidates have been walking suggesting the US should attack Iran. Does this worry you?
MS: It doesn't worry me because they have already messed up one war in Iraq, and Afghanistan is not very good either, so, you know, there is no more money. If there was not the background of Afghanistan and Iraq, I would be very much worried.
MJ: It's just that the recent rhetoric is so similar to pre-Iraq.In the book, Nasser-Ali plays the tar. Knopf Doubleday
MS: Absolutely. But they must be idiots if they do that. You just have to see the changes that they did in Iraq. And Iran is not Iraq. Iraq was an exiled country; it was completely destroyed. Iran is a much bigger country. It's completely stupid—I mean, someone has to tell me when in the life of the human being has war solved the problem, that we should continue making wars.
MJ: I gather you still have relatives in Iran.
MS: My parents, for example.
MJ: Both Persepolis and Chicken With Plums portray relatives of yours. What do they think of your work?
MS: Well, when I'm nice to people I always use their real name and when I'm not nice to them, it's not them—I mean, nobody will know that's them. As for the second story, really the only truth about it is that I saw a picture of my mother's uncle and they told me that he was a great musician. That when he was playing in his garden they would stop in the street listening to his music. And I saw some sort of melancholy and something in his eyes. And that was really a moment in my life that I had all these questions and I was completely obsessed by the idea of death. So I chose this story, but then the rest is my story—things that I have heard, things that I have made up. I think that all stories—if you make movies about zombies and aliens—it has always to do with your personal story. If not directly, it is about your fears, your obsessions, things like that.
MJ: So in short, your relatives dig your stuff?
MS: Yeah, they do.
MJ: But the Iranian regime does not dig your stuff. Didn't they try to ban Persepolis?