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The Triplets of Belleville (2003)

by on 2011/05/10

“Is that it, then?”

* *

I’ve heard and read many good things about The Triplets of Belleville over the last near-decade. It was an unsurprising contender for inclusion in this month’s animation pool. It’s an example of something I’ve long wanted to review, an almost purely visual experience, with little reliance on narration or dialogue.

Which is why — after expending no small effort in obtaining the video — I was profoundly disappointed in finally seeing it. Imagine me agog, incredulous and gasping, “What in hell was that?” Cinephiles pay tribute to the charms of originality, but be careful what you wish for. Sometimes “original” is creepy and unpleasant.

The story concerns Madame Souza raising her grandson, Champion. She doesn’t know how to make him happy when their television breaks. She buys him toys, a pet, and a piano, all to no avail. Eventually his interest in cycling is revealed.

Years later, having become a competitor in the Tour de France, Champion is kidnapped by mobsters as part of a gambling scheme. Souza and their pet dog, Bruno, embark on a quest to find him.

I must say, despite my eventual disappointment, the early moments offered promise. Souza and Champion’s TV program is vintage Vaudevillian, animated in a distressed sepia tone stoking me against the labours to come.

What followed was a marginally more colourful approach, but one in which the living creatures are either grotesquely fat, grotesquely ugly, or both. Accordion players, animals, and cyclists alike share repulsive close-ups of a hideous visage. My immediate reaction was Bob and Margaret by way of Jim Unger’s Herman.

Belleville is ugly in other ways too. The relationship between Souza and Bruno recalls The Giving Tree with her alternate neglect and abuse of him. Other aspects irritate as well, many of them screaming pretension: communication by means of a coach’s whistle, the dog’s dream sequences, and a stubborn refusal to dub or subtitle most of the spoken French (regardless of the language mode selected).

The filmmakers seem to be pushing envelopes because they can. The core premise is hardly flawed, and yet its execution is an impediment. At several points I was reminded of Andy Warhol, whose efforts I have not seen, reputed to include real-time recordings of people eating food. Belleville’s climactic chase should not be dull, long, slow, and uninvolving. At 81 minutes in duration, this movie drags on forever.

Was there anything I enjoyed? Precious little, and even my praise must be qualified. The score by Benoit Charest is great. It embodies a kind of retro European crime jazz, occasionally edging toward Twin Peaks.

As much as I enjoyed his work, however, I was irritated by the recurring “performance art” scenes, where unconventional instruments triggered rhythmic musical routines. The first one amused me, in the manner of old commercials for “unbeatable” Rubbermaid but, with repetition, they wore me down. Animated Stomp routines are nowhere near as impressive as the same executed by a group of live performers.

A truly contrarian labour, Triplets of Belleville eventually lost me. By the halfway point I knew I was waiting for redemption or simply the end. Its relentless eccentricity never quite negates the boredom.

Unconventional? Yes. Daring? Possibly. Enjoyable? Not a chance.

* *

Rated PG13 for adult situations, nudity, and violence

81 minutes

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