Friday, May 18, 2012

The Triplets of Belleville (2003)

Les triplettes de Belleville, France/Belgium/Canada/UK, 80 minutes
Director/writer: Sylvain Chomet
Production design: Evgeni Tomov
Art direction: Thierry Million
Music: Benoit Charest
Editors: Dominique Brune, Chantal Colibert Brunner, Dominique Lefever
Cast/voices of: Jean-Claude Donda, Michel Robin, Monica Viegas, Beatrice Bonifassi, Lina Boudreau, Mari-Lou Gauthier

It's not hard to guess from promotional material such as posters and trailers that The Triplets of Belleville is going to make its bones square in the service of charm and eccentricity, as only animated features can do it. But there's little to prepare one for how deeply weird and ultimately satisfying on that level that it is. It's practically all visuals, music, and sounds, virtually no dialogue whatsoever, and its plot points careen and linger seemingly at random. There's a lot going on for an 80-minute film but it's rarely confusing and never rushed. It is equal parts breathtakingly beautiful, howlingly funny, and weird beyond words.

It signals its essential positions in the opening sequence, a clip from a movie seen on TV, the kind of portmanteau picture of musical acts made more often in the '40s and '50s (with half a foot in a few of the Busby Berkeley musicals of the '30s)—A Song Is Born is one good example, Orchestra Wives is another, and so are some of the '50s rock 'n' roll pictures, such as The Girl Can't Help It—featuring performances by an array of well-known musical acts with a vague narrative dotted through. In the Triplets version it's the opportunity for a series of quick, economical, and amazing set pieces: a topless performance by Josephine Baker, a Fred Astaire routine in which his shoes turn carnivorous and devour him, Django Reinhardt working the frets with his bare foot so he can take a smoke break, and, of course, the Triplets themselves, performing their hit, which is ubiquitous, and ubiquitously well-known, all through this picture, "Belleville Rendez-Vous," a marvel of sleek syncopation and rhythm and harmony. Then the story proper, such as it is, begins.

No need to get too deep into the plot; better to just experience it for itself as it comes. It involves competitive bicyclists, playing music as a way of life, gangsters, and the love of a mother for her son. It comes at you with a regular stream of strange and intuitive gestures, which operate almost on the subconscious levels claimed by the original surrealists (such as Rene Magritte, who was also Belgian, as is director/writer Sylvain Chomet). For example, there's the almost obsessive attention to vehicles: bicycles, of course, but also trains, ships, paddleboats, trucks, buses, and feet. There is a lazy old dog who barks at all of them and at night sleeps and dreams that he is on a train and the people he passes are barking at him. There are gangsters shaped like coffins, with sunken heads, giant squared-off shoulders towering over them; when they are in close proximity they lock together like Lego pieces.

There are so many nice touches, in fact, that it's tempting to simply make a pile of them with "and then," "and then," "and then." When a kidnapped bicyclist is taken onto an oceangoing liner and thence across the sea to Belleville (which appears to be New York), his mother and the faithful dog hire a paddleboat and follow. They stay with it even during storms at night on the high seas, with suitable choral accompaniment. A whale comes by and gives them a lift. The dog barks at it. The oceangoing liner, by the way, looks like a cruise ship riding on top of a giant narrow fin. Proportionality often skews crazy here. In the chase scene at the end, after an hour or more of a certain mid-century Parisian nightclub style of mannered sophistication, the music takes a decided turn toward the '70s blaxploitation style. Also cars explode. But it's all seamless.

The Triplets themselves, in the present time of the movie, are aged and impoverished but still perform with obvious zeal, not to mention their always surprising rhythmic skills and the general avant-garde bent of their jams. Their first "live" appearance here, perhaps halfway through, is almost perfectly ridiculous and sublime. The mother, still in search of her kidnapped son in Belleville, finds herself underneath a bridge at night with no place to go. She starts making music with the spokes of a bicycle wheel. And just like that they appear, out of the darkness, aged but slinky and twitchy, digging the groove laid down on the bicycle wheel. It's truly magical, a great moment.

Once they show up, the Triplets prove to be something of an Addams Family shtick, living bizarre and grotesque lives, catching frogs for food by using depth charges (which they seem to have in great supply), an umbrella, and a net. And make no mistake, they are crazy for frog. It's all they eat: boiled, barbecued, still alive, tadpoles popped like popcorn, or simply holding and licking them like ice cream cones. At night they stay up late watching reruns of "Benny Hill" together in bed, laughing at it uproariously and un-self-consciously.

The art is lovely, fastidious and eccentric, tinged with sepia and its own syntax of exaggeration and indulgence, such as the muscle-bound legs of the bicyclists, that shape of the gangsters, the various color palettes, as for dreamscapes or for Belleville, and more. It's particularly good on cityscapes and often cuts to overhead shots from high in the air, where the traffic patterns are intricately fascinating and a pleasure to watch, as are the skylines and architecture.

It does not ever stop being weird or surprising—"surreal" is a popular word to apply to it, and Jacques Tati a primary referent. I don't know Tati's work well, though enough to discern the connection. It is often cold or even cruel, as in its treatment of the frogs, or Fred Astaire, an element that is there, I think, to maintain a reserved distance from some of its other factors that could be easily manipulated for the warm and treacly response, such as the mother's heroic efforts not only to rescue her son, but to support his dream in the first place of becoming a competitive bicyclist. In a picture full of nice touches, that formal restraint is one of the nicest.

Director and writer Sylvain Chomet's ability to balance a good many countervailing forces in a picture that runs fast to absurd extremes and to maintain an unmistakably sophisticated aesthetic through it all may be the nicest of all. It's basically a silent comedy, but infinitely more deft at what it's doing than the recent The Artist (and I say that as one who enjoyed and admired The Artist). Chomet's dedication at the end, "For my parents," somehow conveys the significance and extraordinary labor that must have gone into this for him. As do the eight years that would elapse before his next feature, The Illusionist, whose tie to Tati is more explicit, and incidentally more troubling, but whose artistry is at least the equal of this very remarkable feature.

Top 10 of 2003
In retrospect, this was a pretty good year for weird shit and often I find myself positively enthusiastic about a lot of it too. I love Lost in Translation abjectly and I admire Capturing the Friedmans madly even though it makes me sore from wincing. Oldboy just has to be seen. I think Jack Black is fine in The School of Rock but finally it's the band that won it the high ranking. Do stay for the credits because you don't want to miss any of that. Elephant made it, mostly because last time I saw it I really liked the experience of watching that Bela Tarr thing of walking/walking/walking immediately behind the back of someone's head. It gets to be hypnotic and effective for me. On another day, I know, it doesn't even crack the top 20, or goes to outright dislike. Last but not least, The Five Obstructions has been the one Lars von Trier I have seen in recent years that goes against the grain of my tending to dislike everything he has done since approximately Dancer in the Dark with a good deal of intensity—it's high concept freak show, so of a piece with the rest, but as a documentary I think it really, really works. Open Water at #11 is standing by to enter the top 10 if and when any of these somehow fall out.
1. Lost in Translation
2. Capturing the Friedmans
3. Oldboy
4. The Triplets of Belleville
5. The School of Rock
6. Kill Bill Vol. 1-2
7. House of Sand and Fog
8. Elephant
9. Los Angeles Plays Itself
10. The Five Obstructions

Didn't like so much: American Splendor, The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions, Mystic River, Something's Gotta Give

Gaps: Crimson Gold; Finding Nemo; Goodbye, Dragon Inn; Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, ... and Spring; Time of the Wolf

Other write-ups: A Decade Under the Influence

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