Sylvain Chomet's French animated feature The Triplets of Belleville is a trip. And, like Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, you might get a better handle on it if you were tripping yourself.
The story has sound but so little dialogue that none of it is translated into English subtitles. That's not a problem since we always know what's going on. A rambling start shows a trio of female singers, the triplets of the title, on a Parisian nightclub stage in the 1930s. Other acts include Fred Astaire, who is eaten by his shoes, and a bare-chested Josephine Baker, who becomes the subject of a riot when lusty male patrons try to pluck away her banana skirt. What this has to do with the tale that follows I can't say with any certainty. It may have something to do with the influence of American popular culture on the French.
Cut to an isolated house where a lonely boy lives with his doting grandmother. The boy is round, not unlike the South Park characters, and his hair is parted in the middle like a pint-size Hercule Poirot. For companionship, the grandmother gives the child a puppy named Bruno, and when she learns that he's yearning for a bicycle, she buys him that, too. With less glee than we might expect, we see the see the boy riding his bike round and round his tiny front yard.
Flash forward: The boy has grown tall and whippet thin like a greyhound. His face has the pronounced nose of Charles de Gaulle and the bug eyes of a frog (the first of a long series of frog jokes -- the term "frog," of course, being a derogatory reference to the French people). The boy has arms like those of a praying mantis; his waist is one straight line. Most of his body is in thighs the size of anvils and cleft calves the size of volleyballs. He has realized his dream of becoming a bicycle racer.
Again, we can only speculate about what any of this means. The boy's entire life has been given over to his training. His food is measured out to the gram. He works out all the time. And Grandma attends to his body with improvised implements for massage (a vacuum, an eggbeater and a push-mower) and grooming (she brushes him down at the end of the day). We are inevitably reminded of the way a trainer cares for a racehorse, and perhaps the point is that athletes of a certain caliber are reduced to their physical prowess and otherwise stripped of their humanity. But if so, like everything else in this movie, the suggestion is made but once and then abandoned.
Like a racehorse, the boy is draped in a blanket, the word "Champion" etched into its fabric. We never know whether we are to understand this as the boy's name or his designation. Certainly, when the Tour de France begins, the boy rides with effortless calm and concentration, but he seems to lag near the rear of the pack. And then the movie takes a right turn into a whole other story line. The boy and two others riders are kidnapped by blackguards from the French mafia. These distinctive, rectangular-shaped characters are suggestive at once of vultures and huge black refrigerators, both of which work with the film's developing commentary about excess.
The gangsters take the cyclists to a New York clone called Belleville where everybody is apple-shaped and gigantic. Even the Statue of Liberty is round rather than sleek and holding a hamburger rather than a torch. It's not too hard to figure out the point of these images is that Americans are possessed of some worrisome eating habits. Pretty soon Grandma and faithful pooch Bruno are off to stage a rescue, riding a pedal boat across the Atlantic. As allies Grandma recruits those singing triplets who have now grown old and exceedingly strange. They like Grandma because she can make music on a bicycle wheel. And they are very willing to share their larder, which consists exclusively of things frog. There's frog soup, which looks like split-pea soup, only with frogs. There are dried tadpoles to be snacked on like potato chips. And for dessert there are frogsicles. I presume this has something to do with attitudes toward the French, but I'm not sure what.
Carl Hiassen reports in several of his ecological crime adventures that the skin of a certain Florida toad is hallucinogenic, so maybe that's what the frogcicle licking is all about. It's certainly where I began to wonder about this movie's relationship to altered states of mind.
The last quarter of this film, which was Oscar-nominated for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song ("Belleville Rendezvous"), follows a fairly conventional chase strategy. So before the end we find ourselves wondering what it is we've encountered. There's no question there's much that's arresting, but I think few critics could construct a convincing argument that the film in any way holds together.
- Three retired Parisian singers come to the rescue of a grandmother searching for her kidnapped grandson in the Oscar-nominated animated feature, The Triplets of Belleville.