The Triplets of Belleville (Les Triplettes de Belleville)
Director : Sylvain Chomet
Screenplay : Sylvain Chomet
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2003
Sylvain Chomet’s The Triplets of Belleville (Les Triplettes de Belleville) is an almost impossibly delectable mixture of uncanny weirdness and poignant sweetness. The nearly dialogue-free animated film owes its unique alchemy to Jacques Tati as much as it does to old Max Fleisher cartoons and the art of British designer Gerald Scarfe. Chomet has gracefully assembled all the strange parts into a moving parable about absolute love that is also a witty commentary on global culture.
The story couldn’t be simpler or more strange. A sad little boy named Champion, whose parents have recently died, is taken in by his kindly grandmother, Madame Souza. No matter what Madame Souza does, she cannot seem to cheer up her lonely grandson—not with toy trains or even with a big, sloppy puppy dog named Bruno. But, when she buys him a bicycle, she finally taps into his inner joy. Champion so loves his bicycle that he grows up to be a professional cyclist, aided by Madame Souza who becomes his determined trainer (when he rides, she follows behind him blowing a whistle to keep his pace and she tends to his exhausted body with a massage regimen that uses a vacuum cleaner and an egg beater).
The story takes a turn when Champion is kidnapped by the mafia during the Tour de France. Madame Souza and Bruno follow the mafia to the fabled metropolis of Belleville, an immense, towering amalgam of Paris, New York, and Montreal. There, Madame Souza encounters the titular triplets, who were once swinging dance hall stars in the 1930s (the film opens with the young triplets performing a jazzy musical number drawn in the style of old Max Fleisher cartoons). Now, they are eccentric old crones who live in a rundown tenement building and eat nothing but frogs. The triplets end up helping Madame Souza track Champion down and rescue him from the mafia, which is keeping him captive and forcing him to ride in virtual races on which they gamble.
Just recounting The Triplets of Belleville’s odd narrative doesn’t even begin to do justice to its strange visual beauty, its clever, sometimes dark comedy, and most of all its deep warmth. Chomet, who began as a comic book artist, works in extremes. His characters are all geometrically exaggerated, whether it be Champion’s impossibly long nose, the mafia goons’ rectangular shoulders, or Bruno’s enormous lump of a body that couldn’t possibly be supported by his spindly little legs. The style of the animation has the feel of a children’s storybook, with slightly rough edges and a palette of soft, warm colors.
His tendencies toward extremes also plays into the film’s humor, which ranges from the subtle to the grotesque. Borrowing heavily from silent film comedy and the brilliant Hulot films of Jacques Tati, Chomet earns grins just from background action and the slightest bits from his characters. The resolute way in which Madame Souza pushes her glasses up her nose—in one, determined movement that is both abrupt and almost balletic—had me laughing every time. The frame is packed with various sight gags and unexpected moments of physical comedy (some of the sight gags are slightly gag-inducing, particularly the triplets’ gastronomical love of frogs—stewed, roasted, grilled, you name it).
Chomet freely mixes time and place in setting the stage for his story. Judging by the interiors, cars, and clothing, one would think that the story took place sometime in the 1950s. Yet, the skyscrapers of Belleville are a clear indication of a more modern era. (One of Chomet’s clear messages is about the perils of modernization, as Madame Souza’s charmingly ramshackle house is nearly pushed over by a new elevated railway and Belleville bears traces of old Europe that have been buried and paved over in favor of mindless consumerism.) The film’s visuals are thus a striking expanse of history jumbled together in a sometimes nightmarish fantasy world that is still somehow strangely recognizable. It is a world that is both our own and one that is straight out of Chomet’s fervid imagination.
What we can recognize absolutely, though, are the film’s emotions. Despite having virtually no dialogue, The Triplets of Belleville is one of the most emotionally involving and sweetly satisfying films of the year. The key is Madame Souza, who is a brilliant creation—she’s a delightfully squat, intrepid little old lady who clomps around on one orthopedic shoe and always seems to be thinking one step ahead. Her decision to go after Champion is never a decision at all; it’s just her natural inclination, even though it involves paddling across an ocean to an unfamiliar city and taking on an army of mafia hitmen. You can’t help but love someone whose own love is so beautifully uncomplicated, especially when she lives in a world that is defined by cruelty and hardship. In a completely anti-Disney way, The Triplets of Belleville is the most heart-warming film of the year.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images Copyright ©2004 Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.