There are three animated features nominated for the Academy awards that will be given out later this month. One of them is Brother Bear, which I and most adults who are not parents missed. Another is Finding Nemo, which I and half the planet saw and loved, and which must be considered the prohibitive favorite. But if I had my druthers, I’d give the statuette to The Triplets of Belleville, a daffy, delightfully handmade film from upstart French animator Sylvain Chomet.
It’s hard to describe the premise of this charming film in print without diminishing it into an arcane curio and provoking reactions that might range from shrugs to remarks like, “Umm … okayyy.” But despite the whimsical subject matter of The Triplets of Belleville, I nonetheless found myself utterly enraptured by the film’s weirdly solipsistic universe, the unsentimental ugliness of its characters and its nostalgia for a France that existed between the fall of Vichy and the rise of the Chunnel, the Euro and Lance Armstrong. In other words, the film evokes a drab, post-war France that was burdened by cold-water flats, industrial strikes and student revolts at the same time that it was being revived by Edith Piaf, Brigitte Bardot and Jean-Luc Godard. Oh, and by earnest movie critics who divined the class struggle inherent in Howard Hawks and Sam Fuller films for Communist newspapers.
Actually, such cultural references are kept to a minimum in The Triplets of Belleville. (For what apparently is a truly shameless wallow in 1960s Paris, wait for Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, set to arrive next month.) There are really only two components of Belleville that are quintessentially French: the grueling bicycle race known as the Tour de France and the eponymous characters–wizened crones who were once famous cabaret singers. Over the opening credit sequence, we see the women as youthful chanteuses singing and dancing in a flickering 1930s newsreel. But when the film proper starts, the triplets disappear and we meet two very different characters: a short and indomitable club-footed old woman named Madame Souza, and her doleful, chubby grandson whom she’s raising.
The lad is named Champion–for reasons that will become apparent–and he’s a lonely little boy. His grandmother gives him a puppy, who quickly grows into an overweight neurotic pooch named Bruno that barks at the trains as they pass by the upstairs window of the house. Next, Madame Souza tries giving Champion a tricycle. Much to her amazement, the boy simply loves to pedal and pedal the tricycle in endless circles in their tiny yard. The shrewd woman realizes that she’s got a potential Tour de France winner in her house, and soon she’s become a trainer for her grandson–a taskmaster so tough that Bear Bryant would look like Richard Simmons in comparison.
Perhaps this is the time to mention that The Triplets of Belleville has no dialogue whatsoever, aside from a couple of exclamations and, of course, the songs of the titular sisters. Typical of this film’s aggressive idiosyncrasy, it’s a silent musical comedy, full of sight gags and subtle developments of plot and character. As such, it’s more than a little reminiscent of the films of another great mid-century French artist, Jacques Tati (Jour de Fete, Mr. Hulot’s Holiday). Following in the tradition of Tati, The Triplets of Belleville develops its story and locates its gags with the humble tools at hand. It’s a fundamentally humane and decent kind of storytelling, and one that substitutes pop songs, Mozart and environmental music played with found, readymade instruments in the place of traditional dialogue.
If there’s no dialogue in this movie, there’s also very little of that near-requisite component of animated films: cuteness. No, Coach Grandma never cracks a smile or sheds a tear, and her cycling prodigy, though he grows lean and thigh-muscled, still resembles a beast of burden with his equine eyes, huge proboscis and endlessly churning legs. Even Bruno the dog remains ever the supplicating canine, begging for scraps and trying to avoid being kicked. As appealing as Finding Nemo is, it seems like a inane sugar dispenser next to The Triplets.
The real Belleville is a grimy industrial neighborhood in Paris, neither particularly dangerous nor bohemian (although Piaf and Maurice Chevalier are two of its more famous homies). But in this film, Belleville is a distant, menacing and vaguely American city across the ocean where the story’s last act takes place. By the time the loopy plot of Triplets has unspoiled–and yes, the triplets do indeed turn up, just in time to do battle against the gangsters who’ve entered the story–we’re reminded how much of French culture was born on the streets, from the declasse music hall vulgarity of can-can dancers to the garret poetry of Baudelaire and his fellow syphilitic sybarites and even that most graceful bequest to the world–classical ballet.
But hey, France is a country that annually celebrates the trashing of a prison, and that used to feature prominently on its currency Delacroix’s portrait of a bare-breasted revolutionary goddess leading the street fighters to the barricades. French working-class solidarity goes hand in hand with French culture, so it makes sense that, in what is surely a movie first, the zany uprising at the finish of The Triplets of Belleville is led by an old peasant woman and her comrades–three very cool grande dames.