This is so nostalgic for me – probably one of the first surreal films I ever saw and it remains to this day one of my favourite films of all time. It sublimely mixes cartoon style plots with surreal animation and a simple yet bombastic sense of humour. I absolutely adore it. And so I figured it was probably time to write an article about it.
I’m talking about ‘Les Triplettes De Belleville’ or ‘The Triplets of Belleville’ or even just ‘Belleville Rendez-vous’ – depending where you’re from as it was given titles accordingly. It’s a 2003 animated comedy written and directed by Sylvian Chomet that received enormous praise upon release, including two academy awards and being screened out of competition at the Cannes film festival. There’s no denying that it’s a well know, and well loved film. But it maintains a distinct place as an ‘odd’ work. It has a joyfully strange tone that does not age, it only get more intriguing.
The film follows a boy champion cyclist and his grandma, Madame Souza. After the two have trained for the boy to take part in the Tour de France, the boy is kidnapped by the French mafia to be used in a gambling game which risks human lives in the city of Belleville (fictional version of New York, Montreal and Quebec City.) It is up to Souza and her obese dog Bruno to find their way to the city and rescue the boy before its too late. The plot may appear childlike and maybe it is, but I think that’s an initial appeal. The world in which your thrown into is a fictional and nearly child-like parody of our real one and so allows for strange alterations and exaggerated physicality. There is, after all, barely any dialogue and so the film relies on mime and pantomime to convey the plot. I loved this element because it forces the viewer to solely rely on the appearance and facial expressions of the characters, creating a unique relationship between the product and the observer. You gain a true sense of character from them, partly through how they appear and also through the animation of their actions. Take the bodyguards of the French mafia for example, they’re shoulders are so hunched above their heads that they appear simply as rectangles. It’s weird, but is reflects who they are. Many of the characters appear as abstractions of themselves. The dog for example is obese, the barbers and shopkeeper appear like mice, Madame Souza is tiny, and the triplets (club singers of Belleville who, now they have grown old, are living on the streets) appear as tall, lumbering figures whose hats cover their eyes. The animation really is what pumps this full of magic, and full of surrealism. I remember one shot of Belleville where it appears both like an island but also like a towering New York skyline, leaking Jazz into the surrounding sea as a tall, slim ship sails by at angles it couldn’t possibly in real life.
On the other hand, I wouldn’t call this a children’s film. The twisting skyscrapers and joyfully noir city of Belleville harbours many satirical elements. The tourists are portrayed as fat families, barely taking in anything around them that isn’t edible. The rich elite are observed as small, harsh men whose only facial feature is a moustache – separate and cold, as well as appearing humorous. This is especially apparent when we see the grandson and other kidnapped cyclists being bet on by these rich men to see who can pedal the furthest – eventually one of the cyclists is brutally executed at point blank range for being to slow – a peculiarly sombre moment. Take also what is arguably the most famous scene, where Souza and her grandson see old footage of the club in Belleville where the triplets are instead young and beautiful. The black and white sequence shows hugely obese women falling out of taxis one after another dragging their tiny husbands along with them. The audience are larger than everyone else, they dominate the space with their pure mass and appear pig-like. It all comes together to bring about an acutely rendered observation of the decadence of the richer classes in a tight urban environment, but also the sickening opulence of the ultra rich in this context (presumably around the 20s or 30s.) The jazz, the cabaret, Fred Astaire being eaten by his own shoes, all of it builds and builds in chaos, reminiscent of the party chapters in ‘The Great Gatsby’, until it collapses in on itself as the giant lady sings a vulgar sounding chorus on grunts and growls, destroying the theatre along with it. It feels pointed, but masked behind the veil of animation, as if calling it an animated comedy in any detracts from its ability to deal with mature themes.
Now I know full well how biased I am looking back on this film, as a surrealist, but I would happily argue that much of it’s influence comes from the early 20th century French artistic revolutions. The dream of Bruno when the grandson is pulling him in a tractor along the wheel on his dog bowl definitely reminded me of the early surrealist films such as ‘Un Chien Andalou’. This was a time when Jazz flourished, along side abstract art and surrealism – creating an environment that was both decadent in its wealth but also brimming with strange and modernistic quirks that pulled it brazenly towards a mechanical, surreal and stylised future. The film seems to portray this excellently, giving us a taste of both the story of Belleville as a city but also the more understated love between Souza and her Grandson. By the end of the film you have a motley crew of characters who are just so lovable that you’re completely invested in their motivations and who they are. The triplets especially are so wondrously designed as characters that it’s hard not to love them. There’s a scene where we first meet them in person. Madame Souza is out on the streets with Bruno, next to a desolate fire pitched against the towering, golden lights of Belleville, when she begins to hit the wheels of the bicycle to make a rusty, hollow tune. It’s a scene filled with initial sadness as the bike reminds her of her grandson who may well be dead at this point. That is until three old women appear from nowhere and begin clicking, and singing sublime harmonies. It’s when they begin singing the title track of the film ‘Belleville Rendez-vous’ that you realise who they are. Before long they, and Souza form an acopella rendition, fusing African American blues with a distinctly French dissonance. It’s a scene that takes you with it, and along with the rest of the film it fills you with a love of music. The triplets live on it, its how they survive. The soundtrack too has a similar vibe, the dissonant elements functioning to further convey the surreal tone of the film through it’s music so that every cog of the film is grinding to give the viewer an infectiously bizarre hit. One of the academy awards the film won is for the title song, written by Benoît Charest.
A fantastically strange film that is both innocent in its imaginative storytelling and meticulously constructed in its parody of both modern city life and its historical context. The animation and the soundtrack bring a hugely lovable group of protagonists to life, as well as an inevitably entertaining ensemble of side characters. It is a chaotic celebration of Jazz age opulence, of abstract perception and a passionate affirmation of the power of music and hope in an unforgiving world. I implore you to see this film.