The Triplets of Belleville
2003Director: Sylvain Chomet
Cast: Michele Caucheteux, Jean-Claude Donda
’ve now seen Sylvain Chomet’s The Triplets of Belleville for the third time and still it appears startlingly original and fresh. True, it borrows liberally from the style of Jacques Tati, but what it does with it is entirely its own. The film is peculiar and alienating which, in this case, is a tremendous compliment.
The characters look as if they were inspired by Tim Burton, especially the bicycle racer Champion whose melancholy visage and hollow eyes suggest a flesh and blood incarnation of Jack Skellington. But beyond its obvious inspirations and quotations, the film marks out its own territory in the most maddeningly nihilistic way possible. It rockets by at a ferocious pace, coming to an abrupt halt at just about 73 minutes. During that time not a word of dialogue is spoken (save for two brief sentences); rather, everything is conveyed meticulously through gestures and facial expressions. The artistry and depth put into these characters’ bodies gives the film much room for silence, making it subtle in its genius. However, even though Chomet displaces any readable purpose with his film's utter weirdness, one walks out of the theater feeling somehow changed.
It opens with a brilliant black and white musical number involving a song and dance group known as the Triplets of Belleville. The song begins conventionally enough, only to have the oddity of Chomet’s world slowly seep into the environment. All the men in the audience turn into apes after being aroused by the seductive dance of one of the performers. Later a tap dancer is eaten alive by his own shoes.
But it’s not simply the images that are strange and alienating, but the story itself. It involves a boy named Champion who is raised by his grandmother Madame Souza. She spends most of her time trying cheer him up, at one point buying him a puppy named Bruno. But after finding a scrapbook hidden under Champion’s bed filled with pictures of bicycles, Madame Souza realizes what will make Champion truly happy.
A decade or so goes by. Bruno has grown up to be morbidly obese and terribly annoyed with the trains which roar by the house every couple minutes, while Champion is training for the Tour de France. Once he enters the race, the French Mafia intervenes, kidnapping Champion in order to use him for their personal gambling purposes. Madame Souza uses Bruno’s sense of smell to tail them, which leads her to Belleville. It’s there that she meets the aging Triplets of Belleville who aid her in her quest.
Ultimately, the film transcends any description. I could relate every minute aspect and still you’d have to witness it for yourself to grasp all the wit and charm, like how Belleville itself seems like a suspicious jab at Americans complete with an overweight Statue of Liberty in the harbor holding a cake instead of a torch and the crowds of fat pedestrians that waddle about the streets; or how the old, senile Triplets’ diet consists of dead frogs which they collect by throwing grenades into a nearby lake. These instances lose something when I simply put them into words. One has to observe how Chomet approaches each aspect. I get the impression that, although these events progress illogically to any rational thinker, in Chomet’s mind they form something altogether organic. He approaches everything as if it were simply natural, and that’s what makes The Triplets so startling.
As if all this weren’t elegant enough, I haven’t even mentioned the music, which is absolutely infectious. In addition to being nominated for Best Animated Film, The Triplets of Belleville also has its song Belleville Rendez-vous nominated. The song appears throughout the film in different variations, but each version has its own unique tone in a way that never allows the repetition to become tiresome.
Without a doubt, The Triplets was one of the most impressive films of last year. Inevitably, Finding Nemo will beat out it out at the Academy Awards, but take my word for it, The Triplets of Belleville is the more deserving of the two. If the Academy were only as bold and daring as Sylvain Chomet, the choice would be all the more obvious.