The Triplets of Belleville (2003) Retro Review

It is a personal belief of mine that the cartoon captures the spirit of dreams better than any form of art. A live action film is, essentially, a built up play, staged with live actors, created on artificial sets, the technical wizardry available to multi-billion dollar studios the glamour of ornate set dressing. A comic book comes close, Neil Gaiman could argue that, but a comic book, like a book, can be closed, and requires participation. A book does not exist until the reader says so. A painting, too, is static, a photograph, a moment, a still image of a dream. But a cartoon combines sound and picture, and unlike computer graphic studios like Dreamworks and Pixar, it has no desire to emulate realism. Light behaves how it wishes in a cartoon, there is no algorithm for it. Facial expressions are mutable, as are the voices behind them. Things tend to be a bit off. Bodies can bend and morph, and the setting can explode into chaos at any moment. It moves, a cartoon does, empowered by a driving spirit that can be defiant and personal and as unstoppable as a train.

It is this quality that The Triplets of Belleville revels in, and why it is one of the greatest films of its kind.

There is very little dialogue in Triplets, and what dialogue exists is inconsequential to the plot. For the most part the action is carried by the lovingly rendered characters, whose feelings and thoughts are visible on their exaggerated faces. Madame Souza is a small stump of a woman, with an elevator shoe and a wandering eye; her grandson Champion is a silent cyclist whose scrawny body is split at the waist into two trunk-like legs, his nose a massive and defining monument peaking his silent, dreary face; their dog Bruno is his obverse, a grinning, shambling blob that feasts on the food Champion defers. Along the way of their odyssey they meet a man that would have been better off a mouse, the imposing squares of mafia hitmen, cars that weigh a pound, the fattest Americans ever allowed onscreen, and the eponymous triplets, three ancient bitties that recall the fates, the Hecate, the furies, the Eumenides, the moirai, and all aspects of the triple goddesses that have bolstered our mythology.

It is easy to sum up the plot of Triplets: Champion, an amateur cyclist in the Tour-de-France, is kidnapped by mafiosi to serve as a slave in their illegal races. His grandmother pursues him, her search taking her all the way to Belleville, a city across the sea famed for its enormous hamburgers and enormous citizens. There she meets three ancient musicians that will help her save her grandson.

Greater elaboration is unnecessary, as the film’s magic turns every moment into a harlequin event. Director Sylvain Chomet crafts a world that is whimsical in only an aesthetic sense. There is nothing soft or sweet in this cartoon that is not loved or loving, for its world is much like ours, full of ugliness and apathy, peopled by cynical strangers that occupy space and despise when it is intruded on. Time passes for Souza and her grandson, and early in the film their quaint cottage is overrun by a sprawling Paris, their house bent out of true by the train tracks that run right outside Champion’s window. The city of Belleville is populated almost entirely by gluttonous buffoons, and everything in their city is big, very big, and bright, and loud, and fast.

A waiter that literally bends over backwards for his patrons. Django Reinhardt playing the guitar with his toes. Josephine Baker, whose banana skirt and naked breasts turn her audience of tiny Belleville husbands into monkeys. Fred Astaire being eaten by his own shoes. A diet of frogs. A dog that dreams of nothing but trains. Wine in IV pouches. These images roll in and out of the viewers’ eyes in colors so rich they emanate heat or steal it. And when the triplets show up, there is music, music made from garbage.

Madame Souza loves her grandson and only wants him to be happy. She is the strongest character in a world populated by all sorts of weirdness. She buys Champion his first bicycle, and when he grows too old for it she uses it herself to ride behind him and marshal him onward. He is nothing special in the world beyond, barely keeping up in the race. It is his lagging behind that leads to his abduction, and he lacks any ability to free himself. Yet his family cares, his fat dog and his doting grandmother. Every night she massages his sore legs (with egg beaters), dries him (with the vacuum), and serves him food. After they’ve listened to a little music, she puts him to sleep in his childhood bed, the scrawny boy in the pose of Michelangelo’s pieta. She never complains.

She does have an appalling singing voice, though.

Despite the lack of dialogue there is clearly something being said in Triplets’ depiction of the encroachment of modern times, the surrender of the old to the young, and the influence of that beautiful and bombastic city across the sea. And it is not subtle about it either. This cartoon is ripe to bursting with attitude; it is resplendent in its chaos; it skewers its subjects and its era with manic vigor, lavishing its hideous cast with breathtaking animation, with music as mutable as its forum. Its grime is real, and so is its heart.

The Triplets of Belleville is a celebration of motion and wonder, dispensing throughout its tale all the energy and action and absurdity of a dream. Its conclusion comes far too soon, and you are left asking, is that all there is, can’t we have just a little bit more? Dream on.

The Triplets of Belleville (2003)
Directed by Sylvain Chomet
PG-13
Diaphana Films / Sony Pictures Classics
78 Minutes

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