Dreaming in color

The Triplets of Belleville

Rated 4.0 “Trippy French animated feature about Madame Souza, her pooch Bruno, and the Belleville sisters chasing down the captors of her adapted orphan grandson who’s been kidnapped while competing in the Tour de France."—CN&R 1/22/04

Last week’s blurb for The Triplets of Belleville gives a nice capsule version of the film’s story, but the next thing you should know is that the story is almost beside the point in Sylvain Chomet’s exquisitely wacky cartoon fantasia. Exuberant caricature, absurd comedy and fantasy, a ramshackle surrealism, rough humor and an amiably deranged approach to visual and narrative design all contribute to the agreeably perplexing spell the film casts.

The diminutive Mme. Souza, for example, has a club foot, but that does not prevent her from crossing the Atlantic in a pedicab water taxi in pursuit of the absurdly statuesque ocean liner on which her cyclist grandson is held captive. When Chomet digresses into dream sequences, it’s Bruno the dog who does the dreaming. The kidnappers, meanwhile, are thugs whose bodies look like blocks of granite under their black overcoats, and the title characters are cackling crones who reserve their kitchen tools exclusively for use in their nutty vaudeville routines.

Belleville itself looks like a second-hand fever dream of New York City, but the anti-Americanism over which some commentators have worried seems almost non-existent to me. The movie is a lampoon, and there’s some recognizably American stuff that gets thrown in the mix, but the bulk if its satirical targets are conspicuously French—the wine industry and its cults, the obsession with the Tour de France, the kitschiest aspects of French culture, etc. And if Belleville is New York, it’s a NYC in which some neighborhoods look like Montmartre and the Mafia are French men driving Citroens.

It might be a cartoon version of a Caro-Jeunet film (Delicatessen, City of Lost Children, etc.), but one whose acknowledged muses seem to be Betty Boop cartoons and the elegantly indirect comedies of Jacques Tati.