The Triplets Of Belleville
If you've been following these blogs over the past couple of months, you'll have become familiar with my layout. The title of a film, coupled with an image and then a quote that sums up the movie. So imagine my annoyance when The Triplets Of Belleville (Sylvain Chomet, 2003), a complex, emotional, wonderfully detailed animation, turns out to be silent. Unaware of this fact I sat down with low expectations, and initially the film met them. The strange, almost surreal character design along with a sketchy drawing style and lack of dialogue is hard to adjust to when you don't know it's coming. I had blind-bought the movie for £3 and here I was expecting something along the lines of a French Disney caper. Instead I got one of the most pleasant surprises of recent months - a carefully plotted, quietly engaging, and ultimately rather poignant story. And as well as being better than most Disney films, it also makes a fascinatingly sly attack on them.
The story follows the elderly Madam Souza trying to rescue her grandson, Champion, when he is kidnapped midway through the Tour de France. Along with her dog Bruno, she sets off across the seas to Belleville, a giant city (clearly aping America), full of French Mafia. Along the way she meets three other elderly ladies, The Triplets Of Belleville (a song/dance act from the Sinatra period) themselves, who aid Madame Souza in her quest. All of the characters are completely silent, relying on animation and sound effects to tell the story and express emotion. The best example comes with Bruno. Early on in the film (when Champion is just a boy) a train set runs over his tail. From that moment on he barks at a train whenever it passes the house (which, for comic effect, is frequently, as the house is next to a railway line). At several points throughout the movie Bruno falls asleep and we enter his dreams - portrayed in a dark black and white. The surreal, almost Lynchian sequences are darkly comic - one dream towards the end of the film starts on a close-up of Bruno riding a stream train around a track. As the camera zooms out it is revealed that Champion, looking weary and sad, is pulling the train - and the track is built around the edge of Bruno's food bowl. It's totally bizarre and strangely complex, also achieving something very hard to do in both silent and animation cinema. It makes us form an emotional attachment to an animal as strong as the one we hold with our protagonist. It's even more of an accomplishment given the design of Bruno - he's extraordinarily plump and floppy, obscurely shaped and proportioned...
In fact, the design of all of the characters is more than a little obscure and as far away from Disney/Pixar as you can possibly get. The lanky, almost anorexic Champion has a haunted quality to his face, his large nose poking away from the rest of his gaunt features. The full impact of his character can only be felt on a re-watch however. The final shot of the movie sees an aged, equally morbid Champion watching TV, proclaiming "I think that's probably it. It's over, Grandma". This scene perfectly mirrors one earlier in the film, when Champion was young, indicating that Madame Souza is now dead and the film has been Champion reflecting on the events of his younger days. Perhaps the reason for the obscure design, particularly the mournful qualities of his character, is because they are echoing his feelings in the present? Perhaps his loneliness and sadness is what gives the film its entire tone. His reality distorts his memory. It may seem a bit of a stretch given that the film primarily focuses on Madame Souza and Bruno, but such things are trivial in a film such as The Triplets Of Belleville. It's rare that a film of this type should be so complex and demand so much thought. The least we can do is indulge it.
Then there's Madame Souza herself. A short, rotund pensioner (so yes, predating Pixar's "brave" move with Up, Pete Docter, Bob Petersen, 2009) isn't exactly the typical protagonist for an animation. But then, that assumes we're taking The Triplets Of Belleville as a film for kids. While the film is certainly watchable for a younger audience, they may have trouble dealing with some of the darker elements - a cyclist is assassinated by a gangster in the latter half of the film, albeit offscreen. The Triplets are also strangely designed, in some scenes looking more like witches than a singing act. In fact, just mentioning that I have realised what the style of the film most resembles - the illustrations of Quentin Blake (most famous for his work with the masterful Roald Dahl). An image such as this one, if it were a little more deformed, does not seem out of place with the world of Belleville:
Of course, the animation of The Triplets Of Belleville can also be read as a direct attack on Disney themselves. In fact, some (including in the films IMDB trivia) have referred to it as anti-Disney. And they would seemingly be onto something. After meeting the Triplets in the windy streets of Belleville, Madame Souza is taken to their apartment - on the way up she passes a public toilet left unflushed. The excrement (surrounded by flies) is clearly in the shape of Mickey Mouse's head. And then there's the mechanic, a short, squeaky-voiced fellow who operates the Mafia's secret cycling machine. He is noticeably mouse-like, with his large ears clearly a reference to Mickey Mouse. But the character also has a small mustache - a direct
attack to Walt Disney himself? See for yourself at 2:16 in this clip:
Finally we have an attack on Disney that could just as well be about consumer America - a picture of an unnamed character in Disneyland, with a lollipop labelled 'sucker'. A statement about our willingness to spend money on something we all know is exploitative? Creating an entire theme park to lure money (ahem, families) in? As a concept, Chomet may be onto something. Although places like Disneyland provide a good time, they are consumer capitalization. And we're the suckers.
Finally we tackle The Triplets Of Belleville and America. The sprawling metropolis that is Belleville, with its towering skyscrapers and side-streets, would obviously have been a caricature of America, even if it were not for the obese Statue Of Liberty and burger munching locals. In fairness France gets a swipe too - the Triplets eat nothing but frogs (one sequence sees them raining from the sky in a reference to Magnolia, P.T. Anderson, 1999) - whether it be starter, main or dessert. The frogs are incorporated into everything from soup to ice cream. But the citizens of Belleville are all massively overweight, stumbling over each other to get from one side of the street to the other. They don't so much walk as waddle. So why does such a seemingly angry and opposed film strike such an emotional chord?
Well depending on the individual viewer it may not. But the heart and determination of the characters, combined with the humor and exciting finale probably go some way to balancing its anti-Disney/America themes. But given that such content exists in the film it was surprising to learn that the film was nominated for the Best Animated Feature OSCAR in 2004, alongside Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton, 2003). It's more than likely that the Academy can overlook such things and nominate the film for its positive merits. Or maybe, just maybe, The Triplets Of Belleville had a point. And it just flew right over their heads...