Sylvain Chomet’s sublime 2004 feature is a shimmering, knowing homage to the beginnings of sound animation.
By Gerald Peary
Circle 5:30 p.m. this Thursday, August 23, at the Brattle Theatre for the sole revival screening of this critic’s favorite animated film of the 21st century.
The first images of France’s The Triplets of Belleville, Sylvain Chomet’s sublime 2004 feature, are immediately magical: a shimmering, knowing homage, drawn by Chomet’s cartoonist staff, to the beginnings of sound animation. A scratched piece of black-and-white celluloid unwinds on screen. It’s a wobbly, primitive, early-1930s style cartoon in which a crudely caricatured audience at a vaudeville house bobs and wobbles in rhythm to the live show. On stage, a Fred Astaire figure lithely tap dances, a Django Reinhardt lookalike strums some hot licks gypsy guitar, and, in the spotlight, a trio of odd-looking female siblings partake of Andrews Sisters-style harmony. The song they are crooning concerns a mythical city of Belleville. The language? It’s what everyone speaks in the movie: a sort of muffled, pidgin French.
The picture fuzzes and turns to static, the camera pulls back. What we have been watching is a cartoon-within-a-cartoon, playing on a black-and-white TV screen on a mammoth television console. Triplets, ever animated, turns to color, and we are in a house somewhere in France in what appears to be the mid-1950s. (The only historical clue: a TV appearance later in the movie of a speechifying General De Gaulle, all proboscis but not yet French president, an election which occurred in 1958.)
Whereas the opening animation was frenetic, herky-jerky, Triplets now slows to a pensive, storybook-reading pace, and the images resemble ink-and-watercolors discovered in finely illustrated children’s books. (I think of that Gallic classic, The Story of Babar: the Little Elephant.) The two characters who live in this house are three-dimensional, carefully individualized. Our protagonists. An aging Grandmother, with failing vision and thick spectacles perched high on her wrinkled forehead. Champion, a pudgy, serious little boy in shorts, with melancholic saucer eyes, and a squiggle of a chin.
Triplets is, by careful design, extremely low on dialogue, 99% visual. So there’s no backstory conversation about how Grandmother and Champion came to be living together, or what happened to Champion’s parents. But the lad is obviously lonely, a problem alleviated by Grandma. She purchases Bruno, a hound dog puppy, which evokes from Champion a tiny smile. Better, she buys for Champion a tricycle, which he’s quickly obsessed about, peddling it everywhere.
A grandmother, a dog, a petite boy? Triplets has in place the ingredients for a crowd-pleasing, family cartoon. But playing to a G-rated audience is not Sylvain Chomet’s ultimate plan. Triplets is neither cutesy nor sentimental. None of the characters are there to win your mainstream heart. The film is “alternative adult,” as if there was such a category, though some unusual kids will adore its weirdness.
Bruno grows into a daft, clumsy, overweight canine, whose hours pass in a doggy way, with him trotting a hundred times to a window and barking at a passing train. Meanwhile, Champion, almost nonverbal, grows tall and very thin but with muscular balloons for legs. He’s gone from kid tricyclist to adult competitive bicyclist, and Grandmother has become his trainer. There’s a second-act plot. Champion competes in the Tour de France. When he’s climbing through the hills, he and two other racers run afoul of kidnappers.They’re placed in a truck, then an ocean liner bound across the water for….? Grandmother and Bruno go in pursuit, following Champion’s scent, crossing the sea in a paddle boat.
My favorite animated sequences are scattered through-out Triplets.The topsy-turvy vaudeville opening, described earlier. A long, very funny scene (all who’ve had a pet will recognize it) in which Bruno anxiously walks the dining room, trying, by odd mutt noises and body language, to nudge his distracted owners to fill his food bowl. And the spiritual moments on a painted ocean, when Grandmother and Bruno toss and turn through a Melvillean storm, riding atop a Biblical whale to the soaring sounds of Mozart’s Mass in C Minor.
(The sudden insertion of this Mozart passage — as if providence is talking! — is something borrowed by the Triplets filmmakers from the theistic French filmmaker, Robert Bresson, and his 1956 masterwork, A Man Escaped. Also, Triplets offers allegiance to the French genius comic, Jacques Tati, with a poster from his 1953 Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, and also a scene on a television of Tati, appropriately on a bicycle, in his 1949 film, Jour de Fête. But Triplets is surprisingly free of direct references to famous cartoon movies. When there are visual homages, they’re invariably to French live-action pictures: i.e., the deep-blue dreamscape of 1995’s The City of Lost Children.)
For Triplets‘ third act, everyone — kidnappers, the kidnapped, Grandma, and Bruno — abandon ship for the titular city of Belleville. Here’s another magical animation creation: a baroque metropolis which is seemingly a composite of Paris, New York, Montreal, and Quebec City. How there can Grandmother and Bruno rescue poor Champion? With the help of the eponymous Triplets of Belleville. Decades have passed, and the popular 1930s singing trio (the beginning of the movie) are, in the 1950s, three white-haired shopping-bag ladies who share a slum apartment. And here’s where the grotesque comes in, the stuff of nightmares for impressionable children in the Triplets audience: their chaotic flat sports an unflushed toilet deep in dung and swarming with flies. Their nightly cuisine is frogs and more frogs: frog soup, frogs on a stick, frogs squirming, frogs dead, frogs half alive. Gross!
Still, Grandma, Bruno, and the icky Triplets to the rescue of Champion! They plunge into a den of thieves!
The movie ends happily, with one and all driving into the countryside past a road sign, “Belleville — Thank You For Your Visit! Come Again!” I’d actually like to. I don’t require another The Lion King or Pocahontas. But here’s wishing for a Triplets of Belleville 2.
Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. He is currently at work co-directing with Amy Geller a feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West.