Monday, January 25, 2010

Les triplettes de Belleville / The Triplets of Belleville (France, 2003)

"I saw this movie for the first time when I was eleven.
Scared the shit out of me

(scizophrenicpanda on

The animated masterpiece of oddity Les triplettes de Belleville / The Triplets of Belleville, nominated for two Oscars in 2004 (but won neither), is the first feature-length film of its auteur director (and writer) Sylvain Chomet, a former graphic novelist—i.e., comic artist and writer—from France whose current seat of production seems to Edinburgh, Scotland, where he has formed animation studio called Django Films, which he named after the famed guitarist Jean "Django" Reinhardt. Django actually makes a brief appearance in Les triplettes de Belleville—along a number of other luminaries of the past including Spike Jones, Josephine Baker and Fred Astaire—in the opening nightclub scene of the film. The scene, a kinetically surreal and over-the-top visual treat that calls to mind the nightclub scenes of any number of vintage animation shorts from the 1930s or 40s, also highlights the three singing sisters for whom the film is named, a trio of singing females probably inspired by The Boswell Sisters and/or the more famous trio they themselves inspired, The Andrew Sisters. But this B&W singing extravaganza, which initially starts out in the "real" world as the film opens, statics-out to reveal itself as a television broadcast being watched by the rural inhabitants Madame Souza and her chronically depressed grandson Champion. In search of something to make the young lad smile, Madame Souza first buys him a pet dog named Bruno and, after realizing that the plump child has a thing for bicycles, a tricycle. And never was there a child happier to ride in circles than this young, overweight boy....
Time passes and the city encroaches onto their rural isolation, and by the time Champion has grown to an adult, pencil-thin cyclist with legs of Schwarzenegger muscle they live amidst the grime of a Paris-like metropolis, possibly circa late-1950s. Madame Souza, her whistle glued to her mouth, helps Champion train as they prepare for what must be their shared dream: Le Tour de France! But when the big day arrives, two mysterious men in black incapacitate her vehicle and, soon after, kidnap both Champion and two other participants in the race.
With the help of the now-overweight Bruno, Madame Souza manages to trace and follow her grandson across the great big sea to the city of Belleville (a New York City like none before seen), but there they finally lose the scent. Alone in a strange land with no friends or money, she falls in with the now impoverished Belleville Triplets, who live on boiled frogs and frozen tadpoles and bring in the rent money by performing Einstürzende-Neubauten-inspired jam sessions at a French restaurant-bar frequented by the very French Mafioso that is responsible for the kidnapping of the three cyclists in France. He uses the cyclists at his illegal gambling den to conduct his own rather odd version of bicycle racing….
Can the Madame Souza, Bruno and the three sisters save Champion? Of course they can—whereupon the film resorts to the oldest plot device of animated films, the extended chase scene, as equally common to Betty Boop films (two of the best being I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You (1932) and The Old Man on the Mountain (1933) and any given contemporary film from Pixel, Dreamworks, etc.
That Les triplettes de Belleville didn’t win an Oscar is hardly surprising, for it is much too an eccentric film, much to individualistic in its vision and much too idiosyncratic in its execution to appeal to the mainstream masses of the USA—and anywhere, possibly. Virtually dialog-free, the film is a beautiful, horrific, magical treat in which the actual narrative plays second fiddle to the possible visuals that the oft-dreamlike situations enable. Indeed, it is this oft-grotesque, oft-haunting, oft-hilarious visual originality that ensures that the overly simple story doesn’t doom the film. By the time the film ends oh-so-abruptly after 78 minutes, the viewer has been drawn in so wonderfully to Chomet's unique universe that the full-circle ending feels truly like coitus interuptus of the worst sort—why, damn-it, must we return to reality?
I want more...!
Be advised, as the quote originally found on youtube and presented at the top of this review indicates, Les triplettes de Belleville may be a wonderfully drawn and artistically satisfying animated masterpiece, but it is not necessarily a children's film. In this sense, the film is much more The Fantastic Planet (1973 / trailer) than it is, say, Bambi (1942 / trailer) or Finding Nemo (2003 / trailer), the family deaths of both those films notwithstanding.

As an added treat, here is the music video that goes to the film. The song was written by Benoît Charest with lyrics are by Sylvain Chome; the version here is performed by M (aka Mathieu Chedid) and the Triplets of Belleville (the voice of Béatrice Bonifassi).

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