Thank goodness for the 2003 releases that are now making their way into town, since those are about the only things keeping the first part of 2004 truly interesting!
It took a while for first-time feature-writer/director Sylvain Chomet’s The Triplets of Belleville to penetrate our environs, but it was worth the wait. So is his movie as rich and strange as you may have heard? Oh, yes — and then some. The film is 80 solid minutes of nonstop inventiveness. Still, I don’t know if it’s quite as unique as has been claimed.
The specters of Max Fleischer, Tex Avery, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Jacques Tati hang heavily over Triplets (there’s even a poster for Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday on the wall of an apartment); it’s the mixing of these elements that’s unique, and clearly Chomet’s vision. The director doesn’t merely copy his inspirations; he creates his own takes on them.
In many ways, Triplets could be described as Fleischer on acid. Any movie that starts off with a scratchy, black-and-white evocation of an early 1930s Betty Boop cartoon (introducing us to the titular Triplets in their heyday) is hardly your average affair — especially when it also features a caricature of the topless Josephine Baker, decked out in her famous banana skirt and being denuded by a pack of wild monkeys that have magically scampered out of the audience, followed by a Fred Astaire caricature being devoured by his own shoes. And things only get more unusual once the actual story gets under way.
Even the plot — simple as it is — is bizarre. Champion is a withdrawn, pudgy child being raised by his grandmother, Madame Souza, in the French countryside. Her efforts to get through to the boy come to naught until she presents him with a tricycle, which transforms his world. It’s also the first step on the road to Champion becoming a world-class bicycle racer competing in the Tour de France.
Unfortunately, he and two other racers are kidnapped by strangely square gangsters (their shoulders are higher than their heads) and whisked off to the metropolis of Belleville, where they are hooked up to a lunatic device that has them pedaling away on stationary bikes in front of a rear-screen projection of an endless road. Why? Well, it’s the brainchild of a Mafioso-style wine magnate who has worked out an elaborate, high-stakes, underworld gambling scheme.
Madame Souza — accompanied by the family dog, Bruno — follows with a completely unformed plan to rescue her grandson. She meets up with the aged Belleville Triplets, who now move like the “Goons” in the old Fleischer Popeye cartoons, live in an unspeakable apartment building, subsist solely on a gag-making diet of frogs (hunted down with an apparently endless stash of hand grenades), and amuse themselves by lying in bed watching Tati’s Jour de Fete on a very old television. If it sounds peculiar, it is — though a bare description of the plot doesn’t actually convey just how peculiar this film turns out to be.
Much of what makes Triplets so fascinating stems not from its story line, but from its small details — the encroachment of the city into Madame Souza’s bucolic world, the dream life of Bruno the dog, the oddly unreal drawing style (even by cartoon standards), the X’d out eyes festooning the head of the fox fur-piece worn by one of the triplets, etc.
Much has been made of the grotesque obesity of the citizens of Belleville (a place that seems a strange amalgam of New York City and Paris), with this taken as a comment on overweight Americans — though if that’s the case, then the Fleischers were making the same comments 75 years ago. True, characters who, in a Fleischer cartoon, would weigh in at 300 pounds, must tip the scales at twice that figure in Triplets (though if this is anything more than a caricature of a pre-existing caricature, I’d be vastly surprised).
All of Triplets‘ characters — with the exception of Bruno, who may look unwieldy, but is probably the most on-target depiction of a dog ever conjured up in a cartoon — are odd and remain stubbornly unreadable (and, I suspect, deliberately so). They are merely what they are. And that, at bottom, is true of the entire film: It doesn’t ask you to like it or its characters. Like Popeye, it “y’am what it y’am,” and it demands to be taken on that basis and no other.
Whether you’ll actually accept it on those terms is definitely a question of personal taste, but I doubt anyone will walk away from Triplets and not think they’ve really seen something different for a change. As a side-note to those of you who are allergic to subtitles, cheer up: There’s not a single one in sight; the story is told almost entirely in visuals and sound effects. What little intelligible dialogue the film contains — no more than a few lines — has been dubbed into English.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke