Five years ago, Marjane Satrapi visited Yale University. A study, she was told, had recently been done, which concluded that of the entire female student population, 64% attended Yale to end up with better marriage. “The mothers of these girls who studied at Yale did it to be independent and emancipated, their daughters want to make a better marriage,” said Satrapi, trying to make sense of the depressing statistic. “I was looking at these girls and thinking, that’s 6.4 out of ten. That 2/3 of the population there. Who are they? We’re moving towards a more conservative society.” Satrapi’s new film Chicken with Plums, which she co-created with Vincent Paronnaud, is a reaction to this conservatism. Adapted from Satrapi’s graphic novel of the same name and the follow up to 2007′s Persepolis, the film does not shy away from idealism. Its main character dies from a broken heart early on, leaving the rest of the film to backtrack and become a close, empathetic study and celebration of his life. ”Our film is really not conservative,” insists Satrapi. “It looks like it is, in its shape–but what it is is a celebration of pleasure.” I spoke with Satrapi and Paronnaud about the love in a time of consumerism, whether or not the two can truly co-exist.
Do you think heartbreak is a more filmable subject than most?
To be honest, if I did this film with Marjane it’s because love stories terrify me. I’m a boy so I prefer karate films or war films. At least I used to. But I’m not an idiot. Intellectually what interested me was how to film something so melodramatic. In the final analysis I realized that I’m actually very moved by films about love.
This was something that you hadn’t known before?
It was more like an automatic reflex. Which is stupid because, for instance, I love Truffaut’s movies, and they talk a lot about love. I like epics, too.
This is kind of a romantic epic.
That’s one of the things that really attracted me to the screenplay. Also the fact that you start off with the death of someone and through that death you talk about their life. And that was the beauty of it: in the end you had to come back to that death, but in the middle you had drowned it in this sort of existential flow.
The book is black and white and the film is so colorful, almost to the point of Technicolor. Did you have one color in mind when you filmed it?
Blue was important for us. That blue-green was very present. How we worked with color depended on the period we were filming in. The ‘20s was very Technicolor, saturated. Then we had in the back of our minds the Hitchcock films from the ’50s, the way they were colored. It was very artificial. What interested us was to banish realism, to be able to attain veracity of emotional truth.
Do you feel like the attempt at realism sometimes gets in the way of a story being emotionally real?
I think some people do that very well. I think we’ve OD’ed on television where we’re being sold something that is supposedly really real because you can get a camera two inches from their ass—but in fact, if you really look at it, it’s empty. It’s void of emotional substance. I think it was partially in reaction to that. TV hasn’t changed, it’s still nowhere.
Do you think people still do commit suicide over a broken heart?
No, because we live in a consumerist society where everything is interchangeable. So ok, you lose something, you replace it with something else. So we survive. But it doesn’t take away from the fact that we’re miserable when we have a broken heart. And it’s not by working out at the gym or having a flat screen or a really nice cellphone that we’re going to be any less miserable.
Vincent and I were talking about how the love story is sort of political. The idea of dying of a broken heart has these implications about the way we live, and how we are encouraged to think that people are replaceable.
It comes very much with the new culture of consuming. The same way that we consume everything, we consume human beings. We’re over someone. I don’t know how you can be ‘over’ someone. Someone is always much bigger than we think. And if we’re really honest with ourselves, it’s impossible to live after a broken heart. Probably if this character had married this woman he’s been kept apart from, they would have divorced after three years. But the idea that you have missed your life, that you had to have this life and you didn’t have it, gives you all the reasons to die. Already life is unbearable, plus that you’re living a life that you really don’t like, not the one that you wanted, then it makes it really unbearable. And at one point this guy just decides to be honest with himself. He just closes all the doors of reasoning, excuses, etc., he decides to lie down and die. In this way we can say it’s a film with a happy ending because he dies because of love.
I do feel like there must be all these people walking around dying inside or already dead inside because of love.
There are lots of people who are dead inside. Lots of people are alive but they don’t live. They breathe, they shit, they eat, and that’s about it.
There was a point in the past where it was considered noble to just be honest and kill yourself.
It goes with a general idea of consuming. Like for example, the way they’ve made the working space. Before, everybody had a small office. It was very specific, it was your office that you put your own pictures on, it’s yours. It becomes personal. You’re a person who works in an office who has a corner for himself. When they made these open spaces, they say that everybody’s in the same room, no personal space, you are just one of the hundreds that work there. You are replaceable. The fact is nobody is replaceable. No matter what they tell you, it’s not true. The society would be much worse if you got rid of people just like that because you’ve decided they were replaceable. I really specifically wanted this story to take place in the ‘50s because you believe it’s possible. In the society of today, you buy this, you throw it away—everything is made—even the human contact we have, we’re living in a world where people think, because they have 400 contacts on facebook, that they have 400 friends. This is how far it goes. I always ask them, ‘You have these 400 friends you’re talking about and today they have the flu. Is any one of them going to cook chicken soup for you?’ No! We’ve forgotten that the fact of knowing the other one is not just to know the name, the picture, some message, because it becomes so impersonal. Of course when you text message someone there’s the technology between you and someone else. So there’s no confrontation, you don’t hear the sound of the voice, you don’t have to implicate yourself emotionally in anything. And so this thing has this perversion—we have friends, we’ve forgotten in between that we’re animals. For me, knowing somebody is to know the smell of somebody. I know myself—if I don’t like the smell of someone, it won’t work, and in French you say ‘I don’t smell this one’. That means ‘I don’t like him’. Ne scent pas. Or I need to see your eyes to know who you are, I need to hear your voice to touch your skin to know who you are. So knowing someone doesn’t mean that you have some information and you keep on sending these emails anywhere. In this world, everybody wants to show their butthole to everyone, they make photos of their vacation that everybody should be able to see. How do you want to believe that people can die of love? But in reality they do die of love. All these things they’re doing are the missing part. I asked myself this question many years ago when the reality shows started. I said, why do these work? Is that because we don’t have anymore neighbors, neighborhoods? So we show these people who are in a room together so you have the feeling you know them. Before, you know your neighbor, and now you watch some kids and you have the feeling that you’re entering into their privacy. So in a way this film is reactionary, in that we talk about the depth of love and the music and it’s a real melodrama etc. etc, at the same time, it’s an extremely modern film. The films of today are so conservative.
This film reacts by channeling something that’s very old and that we seem to have lost sight of.
I don’t think we’ve lost it—I think if people are on Facebook and at the same time love to watch a reality show, it’s that they want to have a reality show but the modern life doesn’t give you the possibility. What’s wrong with the modern life is that the brain of a human being or any living animal in the world, when you have a change you need to have a time to understand this change and adapt yourself to this change. Today the world is changing everyday. Every second is changing, so you don’t have any time of adaptation. You always want to go faster and faster and faster. The speed kills the pleasure. That is what they forget. Another thing I like about the film is the celebration of melancholy and depression. We don’t need to be on and happy all the time. I like to be melancholy. Sometimes I like to be depressed. If these moments didn’t exist, I couldn’t be on all the time. Then that means I’m on cocaine. Even with that, after two weeks you get depressed. And I know what I’m talking about. There’s a moment you don’t get high anymore. You need to come down to get high again.
What’s really weird to me is that everyone is depressed but we’re not supposed to talk about it.
Yes, and in a very deep way. And every time you ask people how they’re doing they say ‘great’. You’re like ‘no you’re not doing great, and neither am I! Let’s cry together! Let’s just sit down and create as much snot and tears as we can!’ It’s this idea of performance—I don’t know, it’s a crazy world. I thought I wanted to make a movie with a special effect that we’re all mechanical to talk about death the way I like. I’m so obsessed by the idea of dying that I hope when I see the angel of death he’ll look like this guy who will have some humor, who will talk to me. Not this old skeleton. We can have a conversation, since he’s going to take my life. And just to not have any redemption or a nice end—I’m sick of moral lessons. A few years ago Juno came out, and everybody couldn’t stop talking about it. It was an extremely conservative republican film, because it tells you, ‘if you are 15 years old and get pregnant…’
“Have the baby!”
Yes! I mean, a 15 year old girl who’s pregnant should get an abortion! Already when you have a child, 80% of the time you fuck up the life of your child. If you’re 15 and you don’t want your child there’s no way you should do it. Because you fuck up your own life. I’ve seen girls who’ve gotten pregnant at 15. Their life is fucked, the life of the child is fucked. It has this message and everybody thinks it’s super cool. That’s how far this conservative idea goes. They make an anti-abortion Republican film and everybody praises it as an indie film. I was like ‘it’s not independent, it’s not cool, and this kid, I would slap her in the face and make her abort, and tell her: go back to school, study, and later on if you want to become a mom… It’s better to have an abortion than to hand over your child to some kind of creepy woman. All these conservative films are out there and then our film comes along and people call it a fairy tale. It has a bitter taste because it’s about what a human being is, and we try to be honest about that. We try to be honest about the description of the human soul.