118. THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE [LES TRIPLETTES DE BELLEVILLE] (2003)

AKA Belleville Rendez-vous (UK theatrical release)

Must See

“Don’t want to end my days in Acapulco
Stiff as a board, dancing the tango.
I’d love to be twisted, utterly twisted,
Twisted like a triplet from Belleville.

Swinging Belleville rendez-vous,
Marathon dancing doop dee doo.
Voodoo can can, balais taboo,
Au Belleville swinging rendez-vous…”
–English lyrics from “The Triplets of Belleville”

DIRECTED BY: Sylvain Chomet

FEATURING: There are voice actors, but the film is nearly silent

PLOT: An indefatigable old woman tries to rescue her cyclist grandson from the clutches of the mafia, with the help of her train-hating dog and a long-forgotten, frog-eating trio of Depression-era superstar singing sisters.

Still from The Triplets of Belleville

BACKGROUND:

  • Nominated for two Academy Awards, including Best Animated Feature (the first PG-13-rated movie ever nominated in the category, it lost to Finding Nemo) and Best Song (which fell victim to that year’s Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King juggernaut).
  • Writer-director Chomet began his career as a comic strip artist. His first animated film, The Old Lady and the Pigeons, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short. The stars of that film make a cameo appearance here.
  • Composer Benoit Charest’s score actually utilizes some of the fanciful instruments that appear onscreen, such as newspaper, refrigerator shelves, and a canister vacuum cleaner.
  • Although mostly animated traditionally, Chomet used 3-D computer animation for machines, such as cars and bicycles, which he argued would be too boring to animate properly by hand.
  • Gypsy-jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt (an obvious inspiration for the music who has an animated cameo in the film’s first scene) recorded a song titled “Belleville” in 1942. The Triplets themselves suggest the three Andrews Sisters, whose popularity peaked in the 1940s.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: For a film built on memorable imagery, picking one is difficult choice. A tiny pedal boat chasing an enormous ship across a storm-tossed ocean? The explosive geyser that creates its own rain of frogs, or the gourmet meal that results? The city of Belleville, all enormous buildings and a fat Statue of Liberty hoisting a burger? A strong argument for each of them, but I’ll go with the monochromatic dreams of Bruno the dog, who imagines a dreamworld railroad in which he is towed by his master around the rim of a gargantuan food dish.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The film delicately blends a thoroughly unpredictable storyline, an


Original trailer from The Triplets of Belleville

artistic style at once beautiful and grotesque, and a fierce sentimental streak. Any one of these elements alone could have been off-putting, but Chomet pulls off the delicate balancing act, managing to capture the heartwarming ugliness of a cartoon by Charles Addams or Ronald Searle. As a result, truly bizarre moments arouse a sense of wonder rather than repulsion.

COMMENTS: That plot description up there? Provides absolutely no insight into the twists and turns awaiting this film’s audience. This movie careens from one style and subject to the next. Consider the opening scene, a Fleischer Brothers pastiche in which a theater full of morbidly giant women and their meek, miniscule husbands watch a parade of famed caricatures—Django Reinhardt, Josephine Baker, Fred Astaire and his man-eating tap shoes—cross the stage to the tune of the title Triplets’ unforgettable hit, “Belleville Rendez-vous.” (Insanely catchy, the tune is the highlight of Charest’s clever score.) It’s a vital scene, introducing characters we won’t see again until more than halfway through the movie. But in almost every other respect, it’s completely out of sync with everything that will follow: the parodistic animation and broad comedy have little to do with the succeeding introduction to an old woman and her melancholy grandson, nor does that match up to the following scenes of that same little boy grown up and embarking on a quixotic effort to win the Tour de France. Chomet has absolutely no concern that the audience will not ultimately discover how it all fits together, and makes no concessions to be certain of it.

The film’s visual style isn’t just eccentric; it’s everything. With virtually no dialogue, the burden rests heavily on the many caricatures that populate the film. Some are cultural: all French mobsters are denoted by an omnipresent beret and a plum-colored nose, while every American is an obese grinning monster (even the Triplets’ Oscar statuettes are fat). Others are one-line character descriptions: a mechanic for a crime syndicate looks so much like a mouse that he must carry a metal guard for his enormous rodent ears when he visits the barber, a pair of gangsters are identical giant black rectangles so indistinguishable that they occasionally merge into each other, and a maître’ d’ is obsequious to the point that his body is in a permanent curl, so desperate to kowtow to favored clients that he’s unable to stand up straight. Chomet uses a helpful visual shorthand, but it’s one that rigidly defines the world of the film.

This puts an enormous amount of pressure to carry the plot on the tiny back of our hero, Madame Souza, and she is a wonder. So small that she can easily ride upon her dog’s back, with glasses that never stay up and a club foot that is a quiet character feature until it arises like a mighty Chekhov’s Gun at the film’s climax, Souza is utterly absurd. And yet, the movie is dependent upon the audience’s belief in her boundless determination and persistence, and the film hews to her bizarre but indisputable logic at every turn. Sure, she’s eccentric: she may provide a sports massage with a lawnmower or fix a flat tire with a gum-chewing dog, but there’s no arguing with her results.

Ultimately, the forces aligned against her are too great to conquer by herself, so we once again meet the Triplets, now aged, endearing and undeniably nuts. Long after their heyday has passed, they have settled into autumnal madness, sharing a bed and watching old slapstick movies, performing at a cabaret on household appliances, and of course, eating frogs in every manner imaginable. (Under no circumstances outside this film would the portmanteau “frogsicle” be necessary). They are deeply contented in their strange little world, seemingly uninterested in the fame they have lost or the acclaim they could once again enjoy (a roomful of Mafioso regale them with a verse of their greatest hit immediately upon seeing them). So it’s no surprise that they sign on to Souza’s dangerous rescue plan. They are fearless, clever, and fiercely loyal to a kindred spirit.

Chomet is a wickedly inventive storyteller, equally at home with the ridiculous (a chase scene involving Citroën 2CV limousines) and the heartbreaking (the film’s bittersweet flashforward coda). Rumors of a prequel have recently have recently made the rounds, and while going back to the well feels like regression, Chomet’s well seems to have more interesting ideas in it than most.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“To call it weird would be a cowardly evasion. It is creepy, eccentric, eerie, flaky, freaky, funky, grotesque, inscrutable, kinky, kooky, magical, oddball, spooky, uncanny, uncouth and unearthly. Especially uncouth. What I did was, I typed the word ‘weird’ and when that wholly failed to evoke the feelings the film stirred in me, I turned to the thesaurus and it suggested the above substitutes – and none of them do the trick, either.” – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

“Chomet’s film, even though it’s animated, fulfills the visionary potential of the live-action medium. Watching it, you can’t help wondering why ‘regular’ movies don’t have the same brio and daring. The great thing about The Triplets of Belleville, which is mostly set in the fifties, is that it looks like a movie made by people who would actually pay to see it themselves. As one jaw-dropping sequence follows another, you can practically hear the filmmakers’ whoops of pride and delight.” – Peter Rainer, New York Magazine (contemporaneous)

“I don’t often like to use the term ‘strange’ or ‘weird’ to describe a film. Recently they’ve turned into a terrible cliché, with people blaming their distaste on the ‘weird factor’, rather than a film itself. However, this is one (and may be the only one) film that certainly warrants the title of ‘strange’, as there’s really no other word in the English vocabulary that can possibly describe it. Some critics have remarked The Triplets of Belleville as ‘fascinatingly strange’, others ‘terribly strange’, and others again ‘too strange for human comprehension’. It’s really not David Lynch-ish, or anything remotely near it. It’s just that you don’t see elderly women catching frogs using explosives and umbrellas every day of the week, do you? No? How strange.” – Nick Watts, DVD Net

OFFICIAL SITE: SPC – The Triplets of Belleville – U.S. distributor Sony Pictures Classics’ official site contains reviews, basic information and a still gallery; some links are broken

IMDB LINK: The Triplets of Belleville (2003)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Triplets of Belleville presskit (pdf) – Includes informative interviews with Sylvain Chomet, two of the film’s animators, the production designer, and composer Benoit Charest

DVD INFO: The original Sony Pictures DVD (buy) includes a pair of “making of” featurettes, commentary on select scenes, and an original surreal music video for “Belleville Rendez-vous” performed by the French singer “M” (not the “M” of “Pop Muzik” fame).

(This movie was recommended by gnosoz, who called it “just ace!!” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

5 thoughts on “118. THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE [LES TRIPLETTES DE BELLEVILLE] (2003)”

  1. I saw this movie when I was in 10th grade. I watched it with my girlfriend (we were only together for two weeks and she dumped me). Needless to say she was really creeped out by the movie, but I was just stoked. It is TRULY weird.

  2. I remember seeing a preview of this movie on a more mainstream film, and being drawn to it. It was a difficult one to find, but well worth the search. I’m very glad to see it made the list.

  3. Good review Shane. My only real quibble is with the Indelible Image. To me, that twisted opening Max Fleischer parody—especially the part where Fred Astaire’s tap shoes eat Fred Astaire—is the take home image for the movie.

    ry: You dodged a bullet. No sense hanging out with a chick who don’t dig “Belleville.”

  4. My favorite movie of all time. No small feat, as I have a list of thousands of titles I consider favorites, going back well over 100 years. This movie simply is, for me, the epitome of everything a movie should be: Funny, touching, exciting, amazing, sweet, and scary.

  5. I don’t know what all the compulsion to “weird” is; you’d think none of the reviewers have ever seen an original script. It’s a little offbeat but “weird” says more about the people using the word than the movie. Eating frogs is what you do when you’re poor, and they don’t taste half bad. Licking them like popsicles, well, is a little out of normal bounds, I suppose. This is just an extraordinarily clever and original movie, Madame Souza is a heroine, Chomet is a genius, the theme hauntingly sticks in mind (with a great performance by Matthieu Chedid a.k.a. “-M-“) and if you want a “class” to put this in I would call it PSYCHEDELIC before I would call it WEIRD. It deserves to be called a CLASSIC. The lead-in play on retro cartoons (circa ’30s) is a really great sequence. Just one fricking cool movie. Encore!!

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