Belleville Rendez-vous, known as The Triplets of Belleville outside of my native United Kingdom, is a 2003 Oscar nominated animated feature, written and directed by the mastermind behind the similarly styled 2010 Oscar nominated The Illusionist. The film tells the surrealist story of a doting grandma who trains her grandson to compete in the Tour de France before he is kidnapped by the mob. Determined to return him to his native France, she tracks him to Belleville (modelled on New York City) where she and her obese dog befriend the Belleville Triplets, a formerly popular music hall act.
As well as reminding me of director Sylvain Chomet’s quite and masterful feature, The Illusionist, the animation is also reminiscent of classic Disney. The still backdrops and wildly grotesque characters remain faithful to the animation found in the likes of Dumbo or Pinocchio but are darker and drawn with the animator’s tongue firmly in cheek. The animation also displays modern touches but these are counteracted by the wonderfully realised mid twentieth century setting. There are even flairs of psychedelia present and side characters such as an overly foppish waiter and henchmen who seem conjoined at their ridiculously overgrown shoulders wouldn’t look out of place in a dehydrated Yellow Submarine. The surrealist nature of the animation also extends beyond the character and occasionally creeps into inanimate objects too where it is befitting of the plot.
As well as superb character design, the film also features fascinating set design. Opening on the outskirts of Paris, the movie slowly sees the family’s rural house engulfed by industry and progress before the action is transported across the Atlantic to Belleville which as I’ve mentioned is modelled on New York albeit with hits of Paris and an overall shape of Brittany’s Mont Saint Michel. A shot late on also gives the Saint Michel shape more of a Disney look, perhaps a knowing nod to the style of animation. There are tiny touches, such as the brief Disneyfication, peppered throughout the movie which added intrigue and occasionally bought about a smile. Sometimes these were merely innocuous inclusions of a traffic light based on those found in Berlin or the depiction of peoples from differing countries but each added to the film and created a sense that it merits multiple viewings.
The film is presented in the French language but lacks subtitles for non-French speakers. This isn’t a problem though as what little dialogue the film contains is usually incidental and doesn’t impact on the story. Dialogue is generally confined to television and radio programmes, cycling commentary and odd mutterings from the central characters. Instead of words, the film talks through the character’s actions and expressions and this is where the interesting animation helps to explain exactly what is going on. The well designed characters are full of expression and their actions ooze meaning. Like The Illusionist, the film is near ‘silent’ and the only audible memories I have of the film are of its fantastic score from which the incredibly catchy song ‘Belleville Rendez-vous’ was Oscar nominated.
Although pitched as a quirky animated comedy, the film has a lot more to say than is initially evident. I enjoyed the depiction of Americans and America as obese, food obsessed slobs, a typically French attitude towards their New World friends. The film isn’t afraid to poke fun at the French either though with three French characters eating nothing but frogs whether it be in stew, skewered or as lollies. The film also appeared to have a lot to say about Capitalism too. To go into detail would involve spoilers but it’s evident from the plot that the film views Capitalism as a machine run by mindless drones who sweat hard but go nowhere, kept in a perpetual vegetative state but their overseers. It took me a while to pick up on these subtle themes but I’m sure that they were intended. The film gets away with some of its harsher themes and opinions thanks to its charming overall look and style. It’s a little like a cute, cheeky toddler who you allow to push things further than you would their older sibling.
Belleville Rendez-vous is a really enjoyable feature which I’m thrilled to have chanced upon. (Thanks Mike). Although it lost to Finding Nemo at the 2003 Academy Awards, a decision that The Academy should have no reason to regret, this is a fascinating little film, unlike anything else that is being made today. Its style and animation harks back to a time long gone and although sometimes slow, it rewards the viewer’s concentration with some minute detail, reoccurring jokes and an unusual story. I highly recommend spending an hour and a quarter with it if you ever get the chance.