An entrancing act of animated wizardry that puts the Magic Kingdom’s assembly-line behemoths to shame, The Triplets of Belleville was arguably the most popular entry at this year’s troubled Cannes Film Festival, where it screened out of competition. Sylvain Chomet’s first feature is a doggedly strange, if effortlessly whimsical, movie that fuses vaguely recognizable elements to form an exceedingly alien universe.
Belleville wears its oddness with considerable aplomb. Every character is poised between cuteness and grotesquerie. Endearingly hand-drawn and homemade, its antic style fills the frame yet never overwhelms. As eye candy goes, this is as good as it gets, but Chomet’s achievement is more substantial than that. Like every great caricaturist, his exaggerations humanize his two-dimensional creations.
Chomet opens his movie with the “scratched-up” footage of a ‘30s dance-hall number in Betty Boop-style black and white. Singing the title theme, the renowned Triplets of Belleville, chanteuses, preside over an increasingly surreal spectacle: a bare-breasted, banana-bedecked Josephine Baker gets chased off the stage by a gang of old men-turned-monkeys; a tap-dancing Fred Astaire’s shoes metamorphose into sharp-toothed monsters. The whole number builds to a disconcerting crescendo when a giant dancer with a hiked-up skirt stomps onto the stage for the earth-shaking finale.
Static stops the show. The movie cuts to a cozy kitchen, where an old lady, her grandson, and their dog stare at the fuzzy television screen, their entertainment interrupted. The quaint country house is home to Madame Souza and her (presumably orphaned) grandson, Champion. Sad-eyed and friendless, the boy brightens up one day when he comes home from school to a surprise: a bicycle sits in the doorway, a gift from grandma, and a harbinger of his future.
Located in a lovingly reimagined France, the opening passages traffic in the same Gallic nostalgia that defined Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie. Less shamelessly ingratiating, Belleville sees the present—or at least its present—as a more decrepit, if no less magical, realm. A jump forward in time to Champion’s adulthood finds an elevated railroad track ruining the idyllic solitude of Madame Souza’s abode. If the train is symbolic of the sullying effects of progress, the movie finds redemptive charm in Bruno the dog’s clockwork barking at the commuters zooming by Champion’s bedroom window.
Belleville may offer sly comments on life on the planet, but its critique never coheres into a grand statement. Chomet is more fascinated by the details of human behavior and physiognomy. Training for the Tour de France, the grown Champion is depicted as a mild-mannered soul with legs thicker than his torso. Grandma has changed little, though the energetic, club-footed Madame is now half her grandson’s height. Other, unnamed characters register with memorable traits: an unctuous maitre d’ with no backbone, a diminutive mechanic who lets out an occasional mouse squeak, square-shouldered Mafia henchmen who wear dark glasses and travel in pairs.
Chomet’s knack for caricature extends beyond his characters. Belleville offers a mishmash of cultural icons and stereotypes more mischievous than cutting. The skyline of the titular Canadian city, where the action takes place in the movie’s second half, is imagined as an alternate-universe Manhattan, replete with towering skyline, picturesque bridge, and a Statue of Liberty—only a few pounds heavier, and holding an ice cream cone instead of a torch. American tourists clog the sidewalks with their impossible waistlines, while frog is the staple food for some Bellevilleans.
Nearly wordless (murmured French and smatterings of English are the only talking sounds we hear), Belleville needs no subtitles. Chomet prefers pictures over words, part of the movie’s anachronistic charm. That bias toward the visual results in a plot that seems comprised solely of non-sequiturs: the quiet story about Champion and his grandma takes a left turn after he is kidnapped during the Tour de France by mysterious mobsters. The movie then transports us to Belleville, where the kidnapped Champion is shipped to, closely trailed by Madame Souza and Bruno—who cross the ocean by pedal boat. The two then bump into the Triplets of Belleville, now aged and performing as a novelty musical act, who help Madame Souza burrow into the city’s underworld and save Champion.
Belleville continues a remarkable run of animated features in recent years. Movies like Spirited Away, Waking Life, and the Pixar blockbusters have pushed the boundaries of the form, contributing to the critical de-ghettoization of the animated feature. The French-born Chomet (he now lives in Canada) got his break in 1997, when his first film project, The Old Lady and the Pigeons, received an Academy Award nomination for best animated short. That triumph paved the way for the 80-minute Belleville. Completed in five years—half the time he spent on The Old Lady and the Pigeons—Belleville‘s painstaking gestation is readily apparent.
Wearing his influences on his sleeve, Chomet never lets his fandom overwhelm his vision. Belleville‘s aesthetic forebears are easily recognizable and unfailingly hip: you can detect traces of Terry Gilliam, Jeunet and Caro, Tim Burton, Jacques Tati, Buster Keaton, Edward Gorey, among other off-center paragons. Its brilliance derives from the seamless synthesis of such antecedents into a coherent and wholly novel aesthetic. Chomet’s debut feature is a singular creation that introduces a fully formed sensibility to the world.
Benoit Charest’s Django Reinhardt-inspired score is nearly as unusual as the movie it accompanies. A jazzy, jaunty antidote to the adult-contemporary slop that Disney foists on the multiplex public, it also underscores the movie’s potential marketing problems. To whom will Belleville appeal? With that glimpse of Josephine Baker’s breasts and the occasional outbreak of violence, kids are clearly not the target audience. But is there room for a nearly silent, animated film for the art-house crowd?
If they do buy tickets, it’s hard to fathom that moviegoers would disapprove. Impossible to dislike, the movie kept a smile on my face throughout its brisk running time. Belleville may be an eccentric object, but it brims with warmth and generosity. Finding a delicate balance between dystopia and nostalgia, this diaphanous, baroque vision isn’t just a disarming trifle: it’s genuinely transporting.