Thursday, August 16, 2012

Worth Watching: The Triplets of Belleville (2003)

Title: The Triplets of Belleville
Director: Sylvain Chomet
Language: French and English (though there's hardly any speech)
Rating: PG-13

Fred Astaire gets eaten by his shoes. That's (in part) what happens in the fun and creepy musical number that opens The Triplets of Belleville. The movie drags at times, but I'm glad I stuck with it. It brought me into a world where an old woman can paddleboat across an ocean and team up with three other old women to take down the French mafia. An inventive world, where household objects can become musical instruments and dogs can serve as spare automobile parts without getting hurt.

Triplets of Belleville movie poster

The story unfolds as follows: a woman raises her orphaned grandson, who has a passion for bikes. She becomes his trainer when as a young man he competes in the Tour de France. From the Tour de France he's kidnapped by French gangsters and taken across the ocean to the city of Belleville, a place where people love to live large and consume things. His grandmother, and her dog, Bruno, who's just as loyal to his stomach as he is to his owners, follows them. In the city she meets the Belleville Triplets - three sisters who sang in music halls during the 1930s. They still eke out a living performing music (I won't tell you what kind, because I was laughing in surprise) and live in a seedy apartment building. Together they take on the mafia.

The Triplets of Belleville as they were in the 1930s

The quality of the animations is one reason I kept watching the movie. They're rich and varied and full of caricatures. The competitive bikers have bulging thigh muscles and noodle-like arms. The mafia henchmen are like giant menacing boxes that merge together. In one funny scene a maitre d' at a nightclub flops around obsequiously at the arrival of an important gangster. Typical cinematic events are also caricatured, namely a car chase where the villains repeatedly shoot at but keep missing the slow-moving heroes, who hit back successfully every time.

The Triplets of Belleville mobster and henchmen

Some of the caricatures are disturbing, others show a wry cynical humor, while others are full of child-like joy. The Belleville triplets look like happy musical crones. They're lovable fringe-dwellers, materially poor but leading a bizarre and cheerful life in a society that revels in excess; although they're one of the musical spectacles in this movie, they love what they do beyond the attention it gets them. The scene under the bridge where they make music with the stranded grandmother is beautiful; it's the music of people who aren't noticed but don't care, because they're alive and happy and able to sing and dance, and what else matters?

The Triplets beneath the bridge

Music really is used to great effect in this movie. For instance during the short scene where the grandma is paddleboating across the ocean, through a stunningly beautiful storm that's stirring up giant waves and making the clouds and water gleam with lightning, the Kyrie from Mozart's Great Mass in C Minor comes on, and I got goosebumps.

The movie doesn't have dialogue. With a couple of exceptions the only spoken words are in songs or in radio or television (a similar device to what you see in Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times). The music and the visuals are eloquent enough and make the world of the movie what it is: a place where the tragedies are absurd, the triumphs are joyful and silly, and beauty and perversity sometimes seem indistinguishable.

*All images link back to their sources (Flixster Community, Villains Wikia, and Girls Can Play cinema review blog).