The Triplets of Belleville (2003)

Elbert Ventura

Sylvain Chomet's first feature is a doggedly strange, if effortlessly whimsical, movie that fuses vaguely recognizable elements to form an exceedingly alien universe.

The Triplets of Belleville

Director: Sylvain Chomet
Cast: Michèle Caucheteux, Jean-Claude Donda, Michel Robin, Monica Viegas
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
First date: 2003
US Release Date: 2003-11-26

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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