Friday Film Review: The Triplets of Belleville
Genre: Animation dramedy
If you haven’t seen this film or any stills from it, prepare yourself for a surrealistic animation style radically different from Disney or Pixar. Not better, not worse but very different. Things are heightened, elongated, exaggerated and unforgettable. My personal feeling is that this isn’t a film for children due to the dark tone and early 20th century references. It also has very little dialog and what is there is hard to understand or in French. But once the animation and story sucked me in, I didn’t want it to end.
The story opens with famous performers of the 20s and 30s doing their thing. Josephine Baker dances in her banana skirt, Fred Astaire’s dancing shoes almost get away with him and the Triplets of Belleville sing and dance before packed houses of adoring fans in Paris. Time flies and we move forward to the house of a young orphaned boy living with his grandmother, Madame Souza. The two are watching a TV show of the now decades old Triplets during their heyday. Grand-mere tries to find something to entertain and interest her grandson. Music? Non. A puppy? Better but still not quite there. Finally from things in her grandson’s scrapbook, grand-mere hits on cycling. Win! Starting from a tricycle to the Tour de France, we see the two training over the years even as the outskirts of Paris spread to overtake their idyllic country house. Grand-mere is as devoted to training her grandson – does she ever take that whistle out of her mouth? – as Bruno, the now overweight and aging dog, is to barking at passing trains. Grand-mere’s methods of muscle de-cramping and massage might be unorthodox but they work. I have to say the training table fare looks like glop but everyone seems happy.
Then the race begins. During the strenuous mountain section, unknown square shoulder villains appear and a sinister plan is set in motion. But, what is it? Three cyclists, including the grandson, appear to be kidnapped but for what purpose? We don’t know, however grand-mere and Bruno are hot on their trail. Taken on a boat, the kidnappees and their kidnappers set sail and end up in Belleville. Does having to cross an ocean stop grand-mere and Bruno? Of course not. But once they arrive, the trail goes cold and they find themselves, friendless and penniless, sitting in the city dump. A chance encounter with the now aging Triplets gives grand-mere and Bruno a place to stay and something to eat when the Triplets invite them to their decrepit apartment. Going along with the Triplets to their job at a swanky restaurant, grand-mere and Bruno get their first clue as to the fate of the grandson. Following up, they make their plans and set the rescue in motion. But can three elderly sisters, a club footed grand-mere and an overweight dog hope to thwart the dastardly plans of the mafia?
I think “Les triplettes de Belleville” benefits from multiple viewings. This is actually quite a dark little tale. The first time through, I sat in semi-stunned wonder at it. What the heck is going on here? And look at the size of the thighs on those cyclists. How is the grandmother going to manage to follow the ocean going boat – which is exaggerated to the point where it shouldn’t possibly stay upright – and why have the three cyclists been taken anyway? It all – sort of – becomes clear as the film goes along and in the end I found that simply sitting back and taking it all in is the way to go. The color palette varies depending on the era and mood of the scenes. The song sung by the Triplets will turn into an ear worm. The grandeur of the ocean waves will be heightened by the excerpt from Mozart’s Mass in C minor. Belleville is a beautifully rendered mix of Paris, New York City and Montreal. There are also French cultural references that I’m sure I missed – though the trivia section of IMDB cleared a few things up for me. As I said, there is little dialog but the meaning of scenes is understandable without any knowledge of French at all.
The obviously strong bond, the unconditional love, between Madame Souza and her grandson is at the heart of the film. This is one dedicated grandmother who is willing to travel to the ends of the earth to get him back. But there are other characters who are fun to watch as well including my favorites – the elastic and obsequious Maitre D’ of the swanky restaurant, the (literally) square shouldered mafia villains, the mouse-like mechanic, and the grenade stunned frogs the Triplets catch to eat. In the end the escape makes as much sense as the betting scheme being run by the mafia but it’s more fun to just watch the film while enjoying the look and feel of it. I certainly couldn’t get the image of the frogsicles out of my mind for a while. It’s a simple story but told in a complex way allowing us to know exactly what these characters are thinking and feeling. Love, exhaustion, determination, joy – it’s all here waiting for you. B