Les Triplettes de Belleville
Review by Jenny Jediny
Posted on 17 June 2007
Source Sony Pictures DVD
Features: What is Animation?
Although I would not typically use the Academy Awards as a critical barometer, it is of note that The Triplets of Belleville lost the award for Best Animated Feature to Pixar’s Finding Nemo in 2003. This is not necessarily unsurprising (personal disinterest in the Academy’s preferences aside), if one considers the recognition of comics over the graphic novel in the United States as not so much a superior art form, if art at all, but a popular and familiar one. Comics — and animation for that matter — are for children in this country, relegated to Saturday morning cartoons and corporately sponsored paraphernalia, whether sold as a theme park ticket or a vinyl Halloween costume. While the graphic novel, despite being chuckled at as nerd’s fodder, has a long established cult popularity in the United States, it is seen as a far more reputable and series art form in Europe.
In particular, France holds the art form to high standards; working with Belgium, both countries produce BDs, or bandes dessinées, the term for Franco-Belgian graphic novels and comics. Translating to the simple “drawn strip,” this alleviates rather than pigeonholes the genre, as the term is pertinent to all products of hand-drawn animation. France and Belgium have some of the highest outputs of comics in the world, from the globally beloved Tintin, to works by David B. and even filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. The bande dessinée is intricately designed and can fall into different schools of design ranging from an importance on displaying an impression of movement to a more schematic style, fashioned after the ligne claire.
Sylvain Chomet’s turned to filmmaking after completing several award-winning graphic novels, and his The Triplets of Belleville is in many ways a bande dessinée produced on celluloid. This is undeniably an alternate, oddball universe; opening in scratchy black and white tones echoing old newsreel footage. This is Belleville in perhaps the early twenties, and the Triplets are appearing live, accompanied by Django Reinhardt, a banana-skirted Josephine Baker, and Fred Astaire, who is almost immediately devoured by his own dancing shoes; as caricatures, an art form that actually had its peak in the 1920s and ’30s, each of these figures is immediately recognizable with nary an explanation, gently mocking their respective talents. In the midst of these familiar faces, the Triplets, a trio of gangly, scatting sisters, take centerstage, blending not only reality and fantasy, but also uniting artists, temporally separated by decades, at the peak of their art-forms. As the wild cabaret plays on, the camera pulls back to reveal this is a television program, viewed by a grandmother, Madame Souza and Champion, her sad-eyed, stocky grandson.
Certainly Madame Souza and Champion’s dwellings seem antediluvian, as the pair inhabits a tall, brick-layered dwelling resembling a water tower set alone in a perfectly sketched French countryside. The surroundings set a scene worthy of Jacques Tati, as time passes and France modernizes while this pair (and presumably other pockets of the country) does not. The construction of an elevated train to the banlieues set directly against their home rattles more than the windows, as pet dog Bruno obsesses over the train’s appearance, to the extent that it invades his dreams (an inspired depiction, as in slumber Bruno finally boards the train, observing the passengers watch him chug by).
Desperate to ease Champion’s sadness, caused by the loss of his parents, Madame Souza deduces a hobby for her grandson that Chomet parodies to great delight. Champion takes up cycling, and in a flash forward, is soon preparing for the Tour de France. With his elongated nose, Champion is caricatured into the stereotypical Frenchman, solely focusing on his training with Grandma leading the way on his old tricycle, blowing a tiny whistle to keep Champion on track. Champion is not the only Frenchman drawn to popular form, as the leader of the French mafia, with his beret, short stature, and bulbous nose also prominently suggests the Gallic stereotype. Unfortunately his intentions involve harnessing his own countrymen, and Champion, along with two of his fellow cyclists, are kidnapped and boarded to Belleville.
From the thugs aiding the French mafia, with their solid block bodies and black suits complete with skinny ties, to the oversized, portly figure representing the Statue of Liberty, Belleville is a weird amalgam of New York City and perhaps Montreal. The taxis, pedestrian traffic, and art deco buildings are an older, familiar New York, complete with modern tourists — obese, leisure wearing families who shuffle the streets and eagerly seek cheeseburgers. Despite the general population, the French mafia seems to have a heavy hand in Belleville, running an extortion ring that literally involves yoking the cyclists up as if they were horses, their man power fueling the wine-making process and later exploiting their sport for gambling. Despite the pledge for fraternité, these Frenchmen appear to be far more interested in the rewards of capitalism.
Chomet continues to deride the French stereotype as the Triplets make a second appearance, encountering a homeless Madame Souza under the Brooklyn Bridge. Now elderly, the Triplets have not lost their spunk and invite Grandma and Bruno to their tenement flat where we see remnants of their faded past. Chomet isn’t light on their economic situation, and rather grossly – and to some extent riotously – demonstrates their lack of means through supper, a meal consisting of frogs blown sky-high from a nearby swamp and boiled on the stove. Pushing the limits of visual nausea, along with the connection between the French and their associated delicacy, the frogs are not merely stewed and boiled whole but frozen as popsicles, and often don’t quite die fast enough, allowing them to crawl around the flat with dazed eyes. Madame Souza’s repulsion is evident, but she wordlessly obliges and befriends the Triplets as she continues to search for Champion.
One of the most admirable aspects of The Triplets of Belleville is its utter lack of dialogue, leaving viewers to infer and garner their own interpretations and emotions purely through visual means. There are a few garbled phrases here and there, and some bits of radio broadcast, but the principal characters barely speak, expressing themselves through their exaggerated facial features and movements. It’s beautifully executed, and another aspect of the film attributed to an admiration for the films of Jacques Tati, whose own work relied on pantomime and exquisite sound design — the beauty of Chomet’s film is in its animation, allowing the director to take his characters a step further in a way that live actors could not possibly pursue, an exaggeration of form that is both funny, emotionally engaging and slyly intelligent.
The Triplets of Belleville ends on an emotional note, invoking its underlying themes on the effects of modernity, but not before a brief chase involving the Triplets, Madame Souza, Bruno, Champion and one of his fellow cyclists pursued by the mob through the windy streets of Belleville. While the mob races through the hill cobblestone turns, our gang of heroines and heroes stay abreast of the chase on a makeshift boat still powered by the cyclists, its sail a projected black and white cycling film that continues to play during the scene. The visual exertion and delight of the scene melts into calm reassurance as our other trio, Champion, Grandma, and Bruno make their way home to France, the camera pulling out once more to reveal what may be an older Champion telling his Grandmother good night, while The Triplets of Belleville plays out on television. I find Chomet’s dedication of the film to his parents rather touching—imagine if we could all watch our memories play out on television late at night? Chomet’s loving depiction of what modernity erases, whether the lull of the radio putting one to sleep or the scatting antics of three sisters, is an astute and poignant one.