voice cast: Béatrice Bonifassi, Betty Bonifassi, Lina Boudreault, Michèle Caucheteux, and Jean-Claude Donda
writer and director: Sylvain Chomet
78 minutes (12) 2003 widescreen ratio 1.77:1
Tartan DVD Region 0 retail
reviewed by Amy Harlib
A sensation at Cannes and deserving to be a sensation everywhere else, Belleville Rendez-Vous (aka: Les Triplettes Of Belleville) represents a brilliant and refreshingly distinct new presence on the animation feature scene, rivalling the best of Japanese anime and far surpassing in sophistication the USA’s Disney Studios.
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A remarkable full-length debut (after one short, The Old Lady And The Pigeons, 1998) helmed by veteran comicbook artist Sylvain Chomet, this opus dazzles with its singularly weird style of intricately detailed line-drawn backgrounds for the stylised characters.
The leads never lose their humanity despite their individual physical traits being caricatured to frequently grotesque proportions though they always move with a believable, full range of motions. The visuals, rendered in traditional cel techniques with minimal, effective CGI enhancements to the palette of primarily earth-tones and ochres that please the eye, hint at homages to Max Fleisher, the Caro and Jeunet oeuvre (City Of Lost Children, Delicatessen), and even Mr Magoo. The story unfolds with scarcely any dialogue yet gets structured with such adroit skill that it flows along, easy to follow, accompanied by a gorgeous, jazzy score and judicious sound effects, the overall zany, funny and compelling gestalt remaining an utterly unique achievement.
Belleville Rendez-Vous opens with a black and white scene showing a stage performance, Django Reinhardt the featured musician in the band, by the eponymous trio singing a lively tune while sharing the spotlight with brief dancing guest appearances by Josephine Baker and Fred Astaire (who gets devoured by his own footwear!). Static interrupts the picture, which turns out to be a programme on the old TV set in the home of orphaned, young lad Champion living with his grandmother Madame Souza, who we see in colour from then on. Madame Souza cheers the despondent child, his depressed demeanour persistent for some time, with the gift of a mongrel puppy named Bruno. The canine becomes obsessed with barking at the trains that regularly pass by and whose dreams get depicted in amusing black and white sequences. The elderly woman also gives the youngster a tricycle that quickly sparks an enthusiasm for cycling.
Next, the passage of years gets communicated by images of changing seasons around Madame Souza’s home also shown becoming encroached by urban expansion and suffering the effects of the Second World War. We then see that the grown up Champion – tall, of long-nosed visage, thin physique distinguished by exaggerated calves and thighs – with Madame Souza’s diligent support, devoting his life to bicycle training in order to compete in the famed Tour de France race. Madame Souza however, scarcely aged, appears still rotund, bespectacled, diminutive and full of spry energy despite her clubfoot and clunky orthopaedic shoes.
Alas, all the preparation proves futile when, during the Big Event, Champion, along with two other cyclists, gets abducted by gangsters of peculiar blocky builds who, together with their captives, embark on a huge ocean liner across the Atlantic to Belleville, a cosmopolitan centre conflating aspects of New York City, Montreal and Chicago. There, a plump Statue of Liberty parody holds a hamburger aloft, foreshadowing the overweight figures of most of the local inhabitants. Madame Souza and Bruno, rent a paddle boat and, in a pursuit that could only happen in a fantasy film like this one, miraculously survive crossing the vast watery expanse in the wake of their quarry, complete with encounters with terrifying storms and a whale. They reach their urban goal only to lose the trail in the immensity of the place.
Encamped in a marginal area, Madame Souza finds an old, discarded bicycle wheel and in an appropriately ironic touch, realises she can make music with the spokes, and with two sticks, bangs out the Triplet’s tune from the TV show many years ago. By fortunate happenstance, the three performers of that very song, dwelling in close proximity, seek out the source of the rendition. They take the old woman and Bruno into their flat where, amidst rundown surroundings, the Triplets live in genteel poverty resourcefully finding sustenance from a diet of frogs that one of the siblings ‘fishes’ using old hand grenades!
The aged trio, getting by still performing gigs, now making melodies on eccentric array of household appliances, incorporate Madame Souza and her bike wheel into their act which gets a booking at a restaurant/cabaret where important clues to Champion’s whereabouts are discovered. From these, Madame Souza’s sleuthing reveals that an unscrupulous French wine dealer masterminded Champion’s capture for forced participation in a diabolical, illegal gambling enterprise where patrons bet on staged, virtual reality cycle races. She and the Triplets plan a daring rescue that culminates in a climactic chase scene so wacky and outrageously fun that it has to be seen to be believed.
Packed with richly eccentric visual dazzle, whimsical wit and heartfelt subtexts celebrating: inventiveness; family love and support; and love of and discipline in the pursuit of artistic endeavours – while astutely making satirical observations about French and American cultural differences, Belleville Rendez-Vous catapults creator and director Sylvain Chomet to the top ranks of the animation world and of cinematic creativity in general. What a delight to see a truly original talent getting their project out there and getting unanimously positive responses among critics. This film deserves to find its audience, to win awards and to be a gigantic success or at least a cult favourite.
Belleville Rendez-Vous’ superb score, bizarrely interesting artwork and vastly enjoyable, offbeat story – all contribute to this picture’s special quality although the characters prove most memorable: four older women protagonists less than physically perfect, demonstrate their pluck and ingenuity in their lives and to rescue a young man, the very quirkiness of them and their environs emphasising their humanity and appeal. This exceptional animated feature proves the vitality of the hand-drawn form and the viability of an individual’s vision brought to life on the cinematic screen. Not to be missed! Vive Sylvain Chomet! Vive Les Triplets!
The region-free DVD has anamorphic presentation with choice of Dolby digital 5.1 and DTS surround soundtracks (mixed English and French with some English subtitles). Disc extras: a making-of featurette, interviews with the director and art director, animation lesson, Belleville theme music and original music video by M, plus short making-of the music video featurette, three selected scenes with audio commentary, and the original theatrical trailer.