There are some films you watch when you need a warm hug from a familiar source. There’s no new terrain to explore, no outside world, no alarms and no surprises – they are simply soothing. Since a global pandemic was declared on 11 March, daily life has become so strange that the solace offered by comfort blanket movies is enhanced. In this series, we want to celebrate them, in whatever form they take.
At the mushy-brained age of 10 years old, I had reached a difficult juncture of my taste’s evolution, having grown just discerning enough to loathe most entertainment geared to kids and yet still a mite too dumb to contend with art for adults.
I needed something that catered to my conflicting needs, a movie that could entertain me on my terms (my philosophy as a budding critic being that all movies should be comedies with at least a few musical numbers) without a stooping sensibility. At the time, I probably flattered myself by thinking that I wanted movies for grown-ups, but hindsight clarifies that I actually wanted movies willing to treat youngsters like they don’t require spoonfeeding.
As a cartoon with an entirely unfamiliar set of visual referents, as an exemplar of humor rooted in drollery and Tatiesque sight gags, as a piece of a remote and foreign past, everything about Sylvain Chomet’s 2003 delight The Triplets of Belleville knocked my boyhood self over. It’s the ideal selection to show to a budding cinephile, both meeting them on their level while broadening their horizons. I’ve cherished it as a lifelong getaway to which I can return again and again, a reliable bank of simple and immediate pleasures. Every single time, I tap back into the juvenile thrill of discovery, the electrifying feeling that entire galaxies of cinema are just coming into your view.
Friendly to curious neophytes of all ages, The Triplets of Belleville serves as a fine primer to French cinema in its two-way transatlantic caricature. Chomet puts the Gallic quality in terms of how it gets perceived in America, and likewise, pokes fun at the culture of the States by filtering it through his own nation’s congenial stereotyping.
The preamble whisks us away to a New York music hall circa the Roaring Twenties, where rotund women squeeze out of limousines holding their puny rich husbands like a clutch purse. (One particularly plump dame has lost him between her buttocks.) The Statue of Liberty, meanwhile, grips a cheeseburger. Later on, French cyclists are kept alive on an IV drip of red wine. In either case, there’s something charmingly old-fashioned about these playful reductions, due in no small part to the vintage-postcard animation style.
At the jumping joint mentioned above, performing alongside the cartoonified likes of Josephine Baker and Django Reinhardt, the sister act lending the film its title bewitches the crowd with a snappy song-and-dance routine. They’re the connection from one obscure corner of the past to the next, linking this whimsical vision of Jazz Age decadence with the tract of the ’60s that fills out the main story.
Chomet’s script leaps ahead to the midcentury height of Tour de France fever, and joins the true heroes of our story: an indomitable, uneven-footed old woman named Madame Souza, her bicycle-riding grandson Champion, and their trusty pooch Bruno. She raises him for Tour greatness from his earliest years with jerry-rigged contraptions in the home, but once he’s of age and ready for the big time, he falls into a nefarious scheme.
With Champion kidnapped by a diminutive gangster and his rectangular henchmen, Madame Souza, Bruno, and the aged Belleville girls set out to rescue him and bust up the criminals’ operation. With this adventure schematic to keep his film fleet, Chomet indulges all of his idiosyncratic personal whims, chief among them his fascination with analog machinery.
His characters see the creative potential in everyday objects and repurpose them for their own use, such as in the sisters’ signature tune. They back their own vocals up with instruments fashioned from junk – a refrigerator rack plucked like a harp, a vacuum cleaner nozzle turned woodwind substitute, and a newspaper ruffled for percussion. Madame Souza eventually comes to join the band, playing the spokes of a bicycle wheel as if it’s a xylophone. The clever production numbers champion ingenuity for its own sake, the thing that makes boring everyday life fun.
That spirit of untethered imagination as a virtue on its own, a recurring theme in entertainment geared to the younger set, informs the whole of Chomet’s designs. Everything is a winking version of itself, whether that means the steamships elongated to resemble skyscrapers or a tittering little mechanic given the teeth, ears, and overall physique of a mouse. The film understands that the elasticity of reality is the thing that makes animation such a transportive form of entertainment, and Chomet channels that sense of infinite possibility into an comic sensibility more arch than would be standard for children’s cinema.
In a simple, beautifully absurd, altogether perfect gag, Madame Souza makes it to America by renting a pedal-boat on a French beach and slowly ambling her way across the Atlantic Ocean. In the kind of cheeky gag Chomet loves, a final button post-credits returns to the boat rental hut to find the proprietor looking out over the water and accepting that Souza won’t be back within the allotted hour.
At a time when I’ve found no small quotient of comfort by immersing my consciousness in things stupid, undemanding, and sedating – my relationship to Netflix Original Movies verges on the narcotic – The Triplets of Belleville has been a balm for bridging the gap between sophistication and silliness. It in the Platonic ideal of a PG-13 animated feature, not unpalatable to the younger set naturally gravitating to its hand-drawn aesthetic, while witty enough not to incur eye-rolls from parents.
My appreciation for the film has not increased or lessened over time, only morphed as I notice more of the details or grasp more of the references. The film grows along with its viewer, from challenging a kid’s inner adult to sparking an adult’s inner kid.
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