Belleville Rendez-vous

Belleville Rendez-vous (Les triplettes de Belleville) (2003)

Belleville Rendez-vous (Les triplettes de Belleville, The Triplets of Belleville) first published by Movie Gazette, 9 May 2003

A club-footed grandmother named Souza, a batty trio of vaudeville chanteuses known as ‘Les triplettes de Belleville’ (‘The Triplets of Belleville’), and a train-hating dog called Bruno are the unlikely heroes of Belleville Rendez-vous (aka Les triplettes de Belleville, The Triplets of Belleville), Sylvain Chomet’s surreal feature-length cartoon. In their bid to rescue Souza’s grandson Champion from the clutches of a cyclist-abducting racket, they must stand up not only to ruthless gangsters, but also to the modern world itself.

Belleville Rendez-vous is dominated by the contrast between the old values of pre-war France and the new values of post-war Americanisation of France, with all the high rise, obesity, slums and organised crime that it brings. Belleville is a parody of an American metropolis, full of fat citizens who live on hamburgers, and even with a Statue of Liberty (originally gifted by France to America) grasping a hamburger in one hand, whereas Grandma Souza and the elderly Triplettes are the exaggerated embodiment of older Gallic ways, with a diet consisting entirely of elaborate dishes made from parts of frogs (including tadpole popcorn). Belleville Rendez-vous presents this clash of cultures with gentle (if dark) satire, and is greatly influenced by the similarly dialogue-free comic films of Jacques Tati, whose combination of nostalgic conservatism and clownish absurdity has been perfectly captured by Chomain.

Everyone likes a story where it is the little person, or the underdog, who wins out – and Belleville Rendez-vous has both. Whether they are pursuing an ocean-liner in a paddle-boat, or walking the streets beneath Belleville’s towering skyscrapers, diminutive Souza and her dog always look as though they are about to be swallowed up by the vast impersonality of the world around them. Yet in the end, nothing can stand in the way of this dauntless, resourceful woman – especially not an army of goons in American zoot suits.

It is only appropriate that a film so concerned with interactions between the old and the new should place 2-D hand-drawn characters in computer-generated 3-D backgrounds, but this also gives Belleville Rendez-vous a unique visual style, somehow all at once naïve and sophisticated, which is worlds away from either Disney or Japanese manga-style anime.

Although it is mostly set in a vast, oppressive and dehumanising city, the rebellious charm of Belleville Rendez-vous restores faith in the power of human inventiveness, and will leave you feeling buoyant. Defiantly madcap and surreal, it features: Josephine Baker dancing to the accompaniment of Django Reinhardt (until a gang of mischievous monkeys steals her banana skirt); a dog having nightmares about train travel (bizarrely recalling the canine flashbacks from Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes Part II, 1984); an old woman using a grenade to catch frogs; a cabaret piece using a fridge, newspaper, vacuum cleaner and bicycle wheel as instruments; and a prolonged chase that defies all the laws of gravity. Be sure to wait for one last comic pay-off after the final credit has rolled. Encore!

strap: With visual ingenuity and wry humour, Sylvain Chomet’s mannered animation offers a nostalgic parade/parody of French values

Anton Bitel