Film muse – Les Triplettes de Belleville

Les Triplettes de Belleville
Director: Sylvain Chomet
Runtime: 78mins
Release date: 2003
Starring: Béatrice Bonifassi
, Lina Boudreault


You know that tired cliché exalting the power of imagery at the expense of the written/spoken word?

Okay, so you do. And I should shut up already. But I cannot and will not, having witnessed this truism realised in vivid virtual reality.

It takes something rather special to flourish whilst escaping the primacy of the spoken word. And this Les Triplettes de Belleville (The Triplets of Belleville) achieves remarkably.

Les Triplettes is a simple film relating a simple yarn; of a bereaved grandson (Champion) and his boyhood dreams, of the love of a stout grandmother (Madame Souza), of the charming interjections of three forgotten cabaret-performing sisters (The Triplets). It eschews unnecessary splendour and exudes plain charms. It flows with the disarming ease of a children’s picture book, unburdened by cumbersome conversations.

Considering that director Sylvain Chomet is an award-winning comic artist and animator, it isn’t surprising that the film successfully marries the winning qualities of both media. Its scenes speak for themselves visually, as they would in comics, except that music is used to fill in the narrative gaps where dialogue would normally have.

But to be sure, the visuals aren’t exactly crowd-pleasing. Quite the opposite. Devoid of Hollywood-style garishness, the animation style suggests a deliberate departure, even disdain, for realism.

Most of the film’s central figures are depicted in a reductionist manner. Champion, the professional cyclist, sports by his gargantuan pegs; Bruno, the family dog, is burdened with an incredible corpulent mass; and the mafiosi, all generic and indistinguishable, carry broad, box-like frames within their customary black shades and suits.

Inanimate objects too take on wildly exaggerated forms. Ships are impossibly tall but slim behemoths slicing through the seas, and cars limber the streets boasting unusually elongated snouts for front ends.

These visual cues establish the fantastical elements of the Belleville setting. Nothing in Les Triplettes, it seems to say, would be bound by rules of normalcy or plausibility. As such, the film is permitted to take generous liberties; wanton injections of black humour and preposterous gags which it otherwise couldn’t have gotten away with.

At the same time, Les Triplettes visual style provides the film with its simplicity. Chomet is free to reach for easy caricature in lieu of in-depth characterisation that would have necessitated expository dialogue.

Take the mafia for instance. You know the type; ruthlessly pragmatic and murderously avaricious. Or the waiter, stereotypically sycophantic and spineless, who literally bends over backwards to please his customers. Chomet exaggerates the relevant visual cues – turning them into instantly recognisable stock figures.

And it works. Made easily accessible, the story tells itself vividly and nothing is forced. With the narrative focus pinned on the characters, they possess more screen presence. You pay close attention to them; their actions, their demeanour, and their little emotive nuances. They, almost by themselves, move the story.

What more, they are admirably backed by an able supporting cast – the gritty artistry, of drab Parisien suburbs, of glorious Tour de France fanfare, of Belleville’s glamorous decadence and unseen decrepitude, all harmonised with emotive melodies and catchy cabaret swing.

Yet, for all its alluring simplicity, Les Triplettes is in reflection perhaps no more groundbreaking than an inspired return to a simpler form of the medium. It treads on proven grounds where countless of silent films have long gone before, embellishing the style with modern techniques and cultural sensibilities.

It serves up a brilliant reminder, nonetheless, that dialogue is overrated. And Sylvain Chomet told you so.

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~ by spiegel2071 on December 7, 2009.

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