Getting back into this series! Will put up my Doctor Who reviews soon, too.
On paper, this 2003 Oscar-nominated animation has it all. Charming animation, a jazz-inspired soundtrack, a mysterious city adventure. Ultimately, however, Sylvain Chomet’s The Triplets of Belleville (or Belleville Rendezvous) feels a bit stretched and hollow.
The plot, such as it is, is simple. Madame Souza, a former carabet singer, has to rescue her grandson, who is kidnapped by a sinister betting ring while in the middle of cycling the Tour de France. With only her dog Bruno for company, she travels to Manhattan-like Belleville, encountering the eponymous triplets.
The three elderly women were renowned music-hall singers in their youth, and while they still launch into song whenever they can, it’s clear they’re very poor and quite dotty.
There are two important things to note about The Triplets of Belleville. It’s almost completely silent, and Netflix doesn’t bother to subtitle what little French dialogue there is. However if you don’t have French you will still be able to follow what’s going on. There’s very, very little in plot and this is the film’s biggest failing.
If it had been condensed down to half an hour, it could have been very charming. As a feature-length film, the story is too thin and it’s incredibly slow-moving. Even a would-be climactic car-chase feels lethargic. The thinness of story is highlighted by the large amount of repeated shots and scenes. Bruno the dog doesn’t like trains. He barks at the trains that pass by Madame Souza’s house, and he does the same at the Triplets’ flat. We see this again and again, and it’s completely unnecessary. It does provide a bit of foreshadowing, but any “aha” effect that it might have is undermined by the sheer repetitiveness of the motif.
The second point to note is that the animation, while absolutely beautiful, is pretty grotesque in places. It’s not suitable for young kids; there’s nudity (we see Josephine Baker in the truly stunning opening montage) and some downright creepy stuff. The characters themselves are surreally drawn. There’s the grandson, known only as Champion, who is animated like a bizarre bird; with enormous calves from cycling, a beaky nose and a scrawny neck. The elderly Triplets have echoes of the Greek fates; three practically-blind crones who seem be not of this plane. Even Bruno, obese, red-eyed and with a prominent underbite, could not be described as a cute dog.
My stomach churned during the frog-eating scene; even worse was a surviving frog, half-paralysed and disorientated, crawling towards freedom… across the train tracks. The atmosphere in the Triplets’ apartment block is grim and seedy, while ticking of clocks and silent meals in Madame Souza’s house lends it an air of tomblike sadness.
It’s not all bad. Belleville itself is animated wonderfully, a combination of old New York and Paris art-deco. Americans weren’t overly thrilled at the depiction of a morbidly obese Statue of Liberty holding a hamburger (things weren’t great between the two countries back in early 2000s) and to be honest, that kind of sniping seems unnecessary. The music, and the Oscar-nominated song ‘Belleville Rendezvous’, is gorgeous. It’s also one of the few movies I’ve seen to accurately depict a dog using a person as a pillow.
Throughout I kept comparing it, perhaps unfairly, to the output of Japan’s Studio Ghibli, perhaps because it’s the other non-English language animation I’m familiar with. I recently watched Spirited Away after a number of years, and it blew me away again. Like The Triplets of Belleville, it’s not afraid to shy away from darkness or the bizarre, but it never crosses into nastiness. It also a genuine homage to beautiful old Japanese legends and myths, and Hayao Miyazaki’s love of his story shines through. However, I get the feeling-whether real or not- that Chomet doesn’t really care all that much for the pre-war France that The Triplets of Belleville is supposed to pay tribute to.
It’s worth a watch, but it’s ultimately style over substance.