Belleville is an Animated Delight
A one-film remedy for the pleasant but hygienic plasticity of Pixar product, writer/director Sylvain Chomet's The Triplets of Belleville will force even the most taciturn animation naysayers to reacquaint themselves with delight. It's an emotionally lovely and loving film that has no problem reconciling the prosaically pretty with a layer of gorgeous decay. Nearly every character is in some way decrepit; death is a very real thing we see often. But it's a film that knows the difference between a healthy interest in morbidity and pointless juvenile goofing on death and the grotesque. Better, it's accepting of complexity, and humane without a self-aggrandizing, bulleted moral. And yes, the film is French (and Belgian and Canadian), but subtitles? There aren't any, because there's basically no dialogue. Which means you can just kick back and be wowed unencumbered.
A boy named Champion, his grandmother Madame Souza, and their fat, aged, startlingly adorable dog Bruno live in a storybook house literally pushed off-axis by modernism. (Its relationship with a thundering, elevated train is, in and of itself, a terrific short film.) Champion grows up to be a great bike racer, but in an elegant montage merging computer optical processing with Max Fleischer-like "flat" animation, he and other cyclists are kidnapped by French mobsters and taken across the ocean to Belleville--a blend of 1950s Brooklyn and Metropolis. Champion and two other victims are shackled to a Rube Goldberg contraption/betting game. As gangsters place bets on them from the galleries above, the racers are forced to peddle to slow deaths on stationary bikes while staring at a movie screen showing a projected advancing landscape.
Madame Souza and Bruno arrive in pursuit, nearly starve, but are saved by the batty titular triplets, three crone refugees from Josephine Baker-period high-life Paris. The triplets--think the Macbeth witches by way of French Deco guru Erte--survive by blowing up frogs for later preparation in truly disgusting gustatory inventions and earn their paltry keep working as a musical trio. Preferred instruments? A vacuum cleaner, refrigerator, and newspaper. Madame Souza joins in on bicycle rim, and it's a quartet, with the resulting musical clatter sounding like Franco-pop Harry Partch.
The four endeavor to rescue Champion from the mob and a city packed with fat Americans, R. Crumb-ish prostitutes, a seaside boat rental agent with a penchant for muscle boys, heat distortion rising from city streets, gratuitous Jacques Tati references, and more, more, more.
This is maximum-density filmmaking that also understands the psychological effects and use of empty space--punctuating shots of vast seas, wide avenues, and an early-Disney star-twinkled sky mean that Triplets is never merely prettily cluttered. Chomet's omnivorous cultural/technical sampling runs through a consistent worldview/design filter that's deliciously retro in its old-school, hand-drawn high style. Benoît Charest's string-heavy score evokes a less blunt Bernard Hermann, and provides alternately translucent/operatic narrative support. The incidental music--a yummy exotica mix tape that ranges from jazzed-up Bach to terrifically twangy French rockabilly (who knew?)--is never just incidental, but further enhances to characters, images, and ideas.
But pretty pictures and groovy sounds just get you so far--there's more animating Chomet's images. Madame Souza's fiercely quiet loyalty, the triplets' decency, and Bruno's humanity (we even see his sad/sweet doggie dreams) are givens that are always shown, not stated. But the notion of Pure Good is given short shift courtesy the triplets themselves: For quite a while, we don't know if time has corrupted them into a dangerous brand of lost-glory lunacy akin to Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond in triplicate. Whether grounded in shared poverty, an appreciation for Souza's musical and outsider status, or as revenge on the mob--which, of course, owns the swank club the triplets play in--their motives remain a tantalizing question mark.
Conversely, Chomet's bad guys form a complex hierarchy of vanity (a preening, obsequious rubber-jointed maître d'), dumb thuggery (rectangular-shaped flunkies who creepily merge into one another), and greed (the defining element of Chomet's take on Bad is personified by squat and vile cigar-chomping mob boss). So yes, this is a film filled to bursting with drolly witty/weird/gross sounds and images, all lusciously overripe. But The Triplets of Belleville's firm grounding in recognizable and strange human behavior is what lends the eerie and wonderful, lasting impression that Chomet's world extends well beyond the frame, its characters' lives continuing even when the film fades out.