Les Triplettes de Belleville arrived with much fanfare back in 2003 from director Sylvain Chomet (it was his big debut!). Despite being distinctly French, many international studios got behind the project across France, America, the UK, Canada, and Belgium. 15 years on, it’s easy to see what made it stand out at the time – the remarkable animation and sense of character.
It was nominated for two Oscars as well, although it was up against the almighty Spirited Away that year so it was inevitable it lost out. However, Chomet’s film is a darkly comical, poignant, and affectionate film which lampoons French stereotypes whilst revelling in its remarkable visual style. It’s truly something to behold, plus there’s a cute doggy in there as well. It’s…
The Triplets of Belleville
A film largely free from dialogue, the plot homes in on Madame Souza in, seemingly, circa 1960s/1970s France. It appears her young grandson Champion has lost his parents and is suffering from depression and loneliness – trying to inspire him with a direction, she looks for possible hobbies for the lad.
Champion doesn’t take to the piano (that fabulous piano piece, if you were wondering, is Bach’s Prelude & Fugue No.2 in C minor), so she purchases a dog called Bruno to take the edge off his loneliness.
This lovable mutt plays an interesting part in the film and soon grows up into an obese beast. He’s very funny, though, and when the small family’s once rural home is transformed by the sudden rise of urban living, Bruno’s hobby turns into berating the tram system as it blasts by the house at regular intervals.
Throughout the film there’s a melancholic sense of time passing – this is a moment in history soon to be enveloped by another. There’s also a sense of nihilistic sadness seen with the inexorable nature of expansion and commercial development; cities overwhelming rural areas.
The nature of the world adapting is offset by Chomet playing on those famous French characteristics. This is arguably most notable with one of the waiters who turns up, whose exaggerated elegance is a comical reminder of how funny the film can be (you can read about the flamboyance of French waiters in works such as Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London).
Despite the remarkable animation, and the film being quite captivating due to it, we find the story a bit flat. It trails off towards the end, too, but the Triplets of Belleville simply isn’t about the story. Its excellence is due to its sense of character and how the animation often accentuates and plays on French stereotypes.
Ultimately, the plot seems secondary to the characterisation and visual splendour in action. A grandmother encourages her lonely grandson to find a hobby, he takes up cycling, and changes from a podgy adolescent into a beanstalk with disturbingly large calf muscles. He enters into the Tour de France but is kidnapped by the mafia, so the grandmother enters a mission with Bruno to save him.
Again, this plot creates certain contrivances we’re not overly fond of, but overcoming these issues we have the atmosphere and personality brought about by the animation, music, and sound effects. It’s a living and breathing world – a spectacular one, too, crammed full of notable nuances and a brilliant, if subtle, sense of humour. Could he ever do better? Well, we’ll find out next week when we review his 2010 follow-up: The Illusionist.
A bit about the main man! Sylvain Chomet grew up near Paris and (unsurprisingly) studied art at university and graduated in 1982. He moved to London and worked as an animator doing commercials etc., whilst also working away extensively on personal projects such as comics – this is where he developed his distinctive artistic style.
His short film the Old Lady and the Pigeons began production in 1991. He moved back to France, then to Canada, but struggled to fund the project until, finally, the BBC stepped in to help – it was released theatrically in 1998 but won a heap of awards in 1997 when played at film festivals, paving the way for a more adventurous project. You can watch the 22 minute short below in full.
Right now, at 54, he’s been on a bit of a hiatus since Attila Marcel (2013) which met with divisive reviews. However, it’s apparent he’s working on a live action, hand-drawn comedy/drama called the Thousand Miles – it’s about the famous Mille Miglia race. It began production in 2015 so, given how long it takes to make your standard animated film, this should hopefully be arriving soon.