Thursday 25 April 2013

French Animation, Chapitre 1 - The Triplets of Belleville

This is the first in a series of French animated film reviews I will be doing in the near future. This won't be an exhaustive list, as I'll only be talking about films that deserve to be reviewed; there are a few that I think are not as renowned as they should be, and I'll using this column to help resolve this. Spoiler alert: all reviews will therefore be favorable to the movie they discuss.
And here it goes...

The Triplets of Belleville (Les Triplettes de Belleville - 2003)
A deceptive title, as the triplets are hardly the main characters of the film, you only see them singing in a black and white television broadcast at the beginning, and then have to wait a long time to meet them again. If this extremely bizarre film is someone's story, it would actually be that of Madame Souza, a woman who would do anything for her grandson, Champion.

What I think stands out about this film - and what makes it so great - is that it's like no other film I've ever seen. Everything about it feels different, is different. There's nothing wrong with the dozen of animation blockbusters that get released every year. I love most of them. But I find movies much easier to love when they're driven by art first. And with The Triplets of Belleville, you can sense that the director Sylvain Chomet didn't try to do what others were doing, or even just a little differently. He made this film entirely his own; he went all the way with his crazy ideas. And boy does it work!

The story is not complicated at all - in fact it's very easy to follow - but told in such a way, unique to this film, that you never know what's going to happen next. You're looking at a Tour de France stage in one scene, and on the next you're witnessing a kidnapping. Next thing you know, you're at sea with an elderly woman and her obese dog. The tone can shift from hilarious to dramatic in a matter of seconds, and it's never overly weird.
Add to that a crazy chase scene not unlike some Wallace & Gromit sequences, and a truly moving ending; you certainly go through a lot of emotions while watching The Triplets of Belleville.

The animation feels special for at least two separate reasons.
1: as the characters in this movie almost never speak in an understandable manner, their body language is very important to get who they are. And in The Triplets of Belleville, there is a various range of characters, each one animated in a drastically different way from the others. Each one designed in a totally specific way. For instance, the French Mafia henchmen have square-shaped shoulders that barely move when they walk; whereas a Belleville waiter can be seen walking with his head parallel to the ground, and cyclists look and sound like horses sometimes.
2: The Triplets of Belleville is a traditional animated film from 2003, and yet the animation doesn't look clean (except for the occasional use of CGI for vehicles or special props) - on purpose, according to Sylvain Chomet, who stated he's a fan of the Xerox look Disney animated films used to have. In the sixties, production cuts were made in the Disney Animation Studios, which resulted in a more crude, scratchy look in the drawings. Well, that's what the director was aiming for here, not for budgetary reasons, but by artistic choice. And indeed, that look is quite nice.

Another thing that's striking is the nostalgia that irradiates from the whole film. A lot of known faces from the early 20th century appear - mostly France-related, but not only. The backgrounds are packed with visual jokes and designed with colours that make them look like worn-out photographs.
Even the beautiful music, written by Canadian film composer Benoît Charest, has that nostalgic feel about it; when it's not an epic orchestral composition similar to some Star Wars score. Again, only with The Triplets of Belleville...

In conclusion, I would say that the strange, funny and moving story, and the one-of-a-kind animation and strong artistic choices, make The Triplets of Belleville a very powerful mix that deserves to be seen. I'm not afraid of calling it a masterpiece, since it is in this critic's opinion, nothing less than the finest animated film from France.

Next : Le Roi et L'Oiseau

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