|Sylvain Chomet’s “The Triplets of Belleville” showcases strangely amazing animation.
Sony Picture Classics
Written and directed by Sylvain Chomet
Produced by Didier Brunner and Viviane Vanfleteren
Featuring (although not very much of) the voices
Caucheteux, Jean-Claude Donda, Michel Robin, Monica
Viegas and Mathieu Chedid
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
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
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