The Triplets of Belleville, more commonly known in Britain as Belleville Rendez-Vous, is a largely wordless animated film by French filmmaker Sylvain Chomet. As the film’s dialogue is scarce, the fantastic visual animation is relied on to recall the story of a parentless young boy in the care of his grandmother, who buys the child a bicycle in the hope that he will be roused out of his obvious melancholy. The scheme works, and the boy develops into a fine cyclist, in part due to the dedicated help and tender encouragement of his grandmother, who acts as his trainer.
Champion, as the boy is known, competes in the annual Tour de France race, only to be kidnapped by broad-shouldered mafia henchmen, who use him and two other cyclists in a bizarre gambling scheme. He is abducted and escorted to fictional Belleville, closely followed by his loving grandmother and loyal dog Bruno. The duo are aided in their endeavour by the Triplets of Belleville, a trio of aged cabaret singers who give their collective name to the original French release of the film.
The plot is a mere subtext to the beautiful, if bizarre, animation – which is aided by a wonderful soundtrack. Bodies and faces are distorted and contorted into a variety of silhouettes; the Giacommetian cyclists are spindly and angular in an almost comic way, with exaggerated thighs and quadriceps as a result of their physical labours. Conversely, there are numerous overweight characters, whose obesity quite literally renders them spherical. The mafia figures, meanwhile, are portrayed in a more quadrilateral manner, broad-shouldered and bullish.
That the film was nominated for two Oscars upon release in 2003 can only be seen as a cutting irony. For Chomet’s picture is not a typical Oscar-nominee. It can only be seen as a scathing Marxist critique of increasing homogenization, mass-media commodity consumption and the destruction of tradition by an increasingly regulated, mechanized way of life. The city of Belleville is a corrupt capitalist society obsessed with consumption, evident in the brazen ‘Hollyfood’ sign. Despite such an explicit slander of red-carpet culture, the film was nominated for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song at Hollywood’s annual award ceremony.
The grandmother’s house – once a tall, picturesque French residence – is disabled by a cripplingly unsightly bridge erected at the beginning of the film, and comes to resemble a Tower of Pisa-style relic. Increasingly the industrialized oppresses the traditional – Bruno’s irrational hatred of trains stems from a traumatic accident in which his tail was crushed by Champion’s toy-train set. It is a hate so deep rooted that the canine routinely barks at every passing train, a routine that is accelerated with the transfer to the more industrialized Belleville.
The film, released some seven years ago, has aged impeccably. The universal theme at the centre of the plot concerning the all-consuming nature of the mechanized age perhaps has more relevance today than upon Belleville’s release. In an age of increasing digital production in film, most notably with Disney-Pixar’s monopoly in the animated film department, Belleville Rendezvous is a beautiful, refreshing piece of cinematography, impeccably crafted with sporadic bouts of macabre humour. Belleville is the oppressed underdog, the bicycle to Disney’s train; yet the film’s simple, understated brilliance reveals that it is the modern digital age that isn’t necessarily on the right track.