If Animators Were In Charge, Triplets of Belleville Would Win Every Oscar There Is (But We Aren't, So It Won't)
Luke Jaeger · February 15, 2004 | The contortions of film reviewers attempting to describe Sylvain Chomet's Triplets of Belleville were nearly as dizzyingly surreal as the film itself. Some could manage nothing more articulate than, "It's not Disney. It's not anime. What is it?"
What it is, folks, is animation, a genre that from its earliest manifestations has been about transformation, synthesis, the collision of physical reality and dream world. Specifically, Triplets is one of the few successful translations of European-style, short form animation to feature length. Yes, those who navigate the world of animation using American and Japanese major-studio output as coordinates must have considered Triplets pretty far off the edge of the map. Aficionados of Svankmajer, Fleischer, and Winsor McCay, however, felt as if we had been miraculously rescued after an eternity adrift in the ocean.
That ocean, incidentally, is beautifully rendered using all the latest CG technology and populated by lots of cute turtles, stingrays, and clownfish whose fears and hopes (wouldn't you just know it?) are startlingly identical to those of normative American suburban families. I'm no gambling man, but my Oscar money is on Finding Nemo. If Nemo's box office is any indicator, its message—that "human" (read: American) values can flourish in the inhospitable, alien world under the sea; that harmonious cross-species cooperation is inevitable if we can just show everyone how well-meaning we are—must be irresistibly comforting for Americans struggling with the realization that much of the human race currently views us as a planetary supervillain.
The imagery is French for sure: bicycles, frogs, accordions, Citroëns. But that's just surface, and Triplets is French to the core. Unlike so much other feature-length animation—certainly unlike Nemo and the other Oscar contender, Disney's Brother Bear—Triplets is utterly uncompromising. If you've ever embarrassed yourself speaking imperfect French to a Parisian, this Gallic attitude will be familiar.
Like the servile maitre d' in Belleville's nightclub, most Hollywood product is so desperate for public approval that it caters to your every prejudice and bad intellectual habit. But Triplets doesn't care if you like it or not. It has no dialogue, the title song sticks in your craw like a bad smell, all the characters are ugly, and those who calculate a film's merit by dividing the ticket price into the running time are likely to feel cheated by an 80-minute feature. To these segments of the audience Triplets refuses to ingratiate itself. (One of the only exceptions to the film's general disdain for audience expectations is the final car chase scene, which feels forced).
Triplets comes with its own elaborate system of references, influences, and themes, all of them deeply (for want of a better word) animator-ish. Like the Fleischer Studio and Winsor McCay films he lovingly quotes, Chomet highlights his fascination with all things mechanical and transportational, and in so doing situates himself in a tradition dating back to pre-cinema. Bicycles, trains, cars and other things that go have been iconic images in cinema ever since the Lumière brothers filmed an approaching locomotive in 1896. Animation in particular shares a common genealogy with these 19th-century technologies; early animation was the province of eccentric tinkerers and bricoleurs like Muybridge, Otto Messmer, and Ladislas Starevicz. These people were motivated by a fascination with motion itself and what it's made of.
In Triplets, the bicycle becomes a beautiful metaphor for handmade animation: certainly not the fastest or easiest mode of transportation, but one with its own satisfactions, chief among them the sheer joy of motion brought into existence through the agency of one's own body. If traditional animators are cyclists, isn't animating a feature equivalent to riding the Tour de France? Lives there an animator who doesn't connect viscerally with Champion's indomitable urge to just keep pedaling?
When Champion and his long-suffering colleagues break through the wall of their prison and pedal their cumbersome contraption through open country, urged on by a clattering, ancient film projector, they're performing independent animation. No longer working for the entertainment (industry) of their evil overlords, the cyclist/animators are free to take their bizarre machine wherever it goes, with only the pure pleasure of the cinematic experience to lead them. This isn't a snide showbiz in-joke such as you'd find in Disney or The Simpsons, but a moment of gorgeous clarity: the movie knows it's a movie.
Triplets reminds us of the genuine pleasures and hardships of animated filmmaking. One hopes that Hollywood can stop frantically congratulating itself long enough to get the message.