Sylvain Chomet’s visually stunning feature-film debut The Triplets of Belleville stands as a remarkable achievement in animation. The colors, the lines, the eerie, often sad perspective of Chomet’s compositions, the sense of personal history and cartoon featurette nostalgia that he inseparably blends—all conspire to make a beguiling movie trip. Unfortunately, The Triplets of Belleville, as inventive as it is, never connects the dark familial abyss that dominates its early scenes to anything. Nor does the wild, jazzy, 1930s hot club motif of a jive-singing sister act go anywhere. Chomet may be observant in his depiction of a lonely little boy being raised in near mute silence by a mustachioed grandmother, but the writer-director has too much cruelty and indifference coursing through his veins. In his supreme cleverness and (laudable) anti-Disney desires, he forgets, or perhaps never considers, that we need a little heart. Not sap, but something more in the way of engagement.
The black-and-white prologue, which introduces the Triplets at the height of their tweedle-de-dee popularity, as the headliners in a packed vaudeville theatre, isn’t as much fun as it’s probably meant to be. Chomet shoves in our faces his innate ugliness almost immediately. While the Triplets warble their awful little ditty, we see a dancer, who’s presumably intended to be Josephine Baker, suddenly divested of her crotch-concealing banana skirt by hungry monkeys. Maybe I could have ignored that if not for the wretched bit where a Fred Astaire prototype is devoured onstage by his own tap shoes, which have sprouted teeth and turned into mini-sharks. If these are supposed to be homage, they fail.
When next we see the Triplets, twenty years have gone by; the youthful flappers are beak-nosed old women. They have been forgotten, they reside in a slum where the other inhabitants (mostly hookers) forget to flush the john, and the ladies, who still love the hot club rhythms of their heyday, live on a diet that consists exclusively of les grenouilles. Chomet seems to be making a statement with this harsh contrast, only I’m not sure what. Furthermore, I’m not convinced that he knows.
There are a few set pieces that work brilliantly. The grandmother, early on, tries to compensate for the huge generational gap and its attendant tomb-like silence by giving her grandson a puppy. The initially cute, amusing pup grows into a fat, lazy dog that’s as affected by isolation as the two humans, and the boy’s smile fades. Taped to the wall in his bedroom, there’s a picture of a young couple riding a bike; the words, “Mother and Father, 1937,” are written next to the photo. We never learn why the parents aren’t around, and that may account for the sad shadow that engulfs the scenes between the boy, known as Champion, and his grandmother—there’s a huge chunk missing from their lives. Chomet’s touch seems absolutely surest here. There’s a grief that cannot go away. The grandmother buys Champion a bike, a means to bridge the past into the future, and the loopy plot takes off from there.
What also works: In recurring scenes the dog, Bruno, barks endlessly at trains that whiz past the house window, the track a mere hairbreadth away; later, Bruno dreams that he rides atop the train, and inside the family house, trapped commuters growl back at him. That’s the kind of audaciousness that shouldn’t be in short supply. And in the film’s richest scene, a small pedal boat tries valiantly to catch up to an enormous liner on the ocean blue. A storm breaks, and the waves toss this aquatic David and Goliath as the Kyrie from Mozart’s Mass in c minor floods the soundtrack. It’s a beautiful sequence, not just because of the palette, which is extraordinary in and of itself, but because for the first and last time, Chomet imparts a sense of a motor kicking beneath the shrill façade of whistles and noisemakers.
December 18, 2003