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163
  february 5
2004
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 theReel
 
Schedule a Rendez-Vous With ‘The Triplets of Belleville’
 
by Jeremy Mathews
Sylvain Chomet’s “The Triplets of Belleville” showcases strangely amazing animation.

“The Triplets of Belleville”
Sony Picture Classics
Written and directed by Sylvain Chomet
Produced by Didier Brunner and Viviane Vanfleteren
Featuring (although not very much of) the voices of Michèle Caucheteux, Jean-Claude Donda, Michel Robin, Monica Viegas and Mathieu Chedid
Rated PG-13

(out of four)

Mainstream animation is generally sorted into Hollywood-style and Japanese anime, and the two tend to influence one another. But coming unexpectedly out of France, Sylvain Chomet’s brilliant “The Triplets of Belleville,” however, has an energy and style all its own. It’s neither based on experimental nor traditional storytelling methods, but draws from surrealism and a long line of film traditions that don’t normally touch animation.

For example, there might be animated films with heroes as bicyclists, but the Tour de France cyclist in this film has freakishly muscular legs and always looks like he’s in excruciating pain. Then again, the hero position better fits the cyclist’s dog, Bruno. Again, this isn’t a standard cartoon dog, but a slightly neglected mutt who has strange nightmares of cutout animation and constantly barks at passing trains.

When the cyclist is a young boy in the beginning of the film, his grandmother buys a series of gifts to cheer up the depressed boy. Bruno doesn’t make him happy, but once the grandmother figures out he wants to ride bicycles, he cheers right up.

Until, that is, the flash-forward to the present. Driven to mad exhaustion in the name of what he loves, the man peddles along in agony with his grandmother behind him, whistling away to keep him on his toes. When he gets home to an excited Bruno, it’s all he can do to eat his unappealing meal. The scenes are enough to turn off any aspiring youngsters who want to be in the Tour de France. The Motion Picture Association of America rated the film PG-13 for “images involving sensuality, violence and crude humor,” but there really isn’t very much objectionable material for anything other than a nonexistent category like “general creepiness.”

Even when “The Triplets of Belleville” turns into a chase-and-rescue storyline, there’s still time for patient humor and odd musical numbers.

Two square-shouldered men, or one two-headed, square-shaped entity who can separate into two square-shouldered men, kidnap the cyclist during the Tour de France and put him on a boat. Bruno and the grandmother rent a boat with no intention to return it and follow the giant freight boat to the happening city of Belleville, where they lose the trail and team up with some aged singers.

Chomet’s idiosyncratic world view creates a series of detailed, atmospheric locations. He adds a wicked humor to film, less concerned with captivating his audience and more concerned with his cutting creations. At times I was reminded of Luis Bunuel and at other moments I sampled a taste of entertainment history.

Chomet recalls silent film, with the sound mainly consisting of a roaring score and occasional smatterings of inconsequential dialogue.

The most curious element in the film stew is the source of the three title characters. The film opens with a variety show musical number called “Belleville Rendez-vous” that the boy watches when he’s young. Three triplets sing the number on scratched black-and-white film, and we meet them again in the main story when they put up Bruno and the grandmother in their small, run-down apartment, where they aren’t allowed to touch anything. They meet the two searchers in a found-percussion musical number that revises their old song.

The thread between the two groups of three—the triplets and the grandmother, dog and boy—is a lifelong passion for music and bicycles. Neither lifestyle comes across particularly appealing, but the characters continue because it’s all there is, besides their strange relationships with one another. Chomet’s attentive character design suggests that the director is just as passionate as his characters are.

Trying to summarize the film, I’ve got an animated silent musical with one of the most unique looks in years and a bunch of strange, strange characters.

It’s like the animated film that all your favorite bizarre directors who’d never work in animation would make, except a little stranger and a bit more original.
jeremy@red-mag.com

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