The Triplets of Belleville
First, the good news: Sylvain Chomet's "The Triplets of Belleville" is absolutely unlike any film you've ever seen before. It makes hash of all the recognizable tropes of story, character and place; it has no dialogue, but is silent in the same way Guy Maddin's "The Heart of the World" is silent, that is, it is filled with sounds and rhythms that work in place of language; and it is stuffed to bursting with animated cities, landscapes, buildings and a ship so tall and foreshortened that it looks like a thousand-foot-tall ballet dancer on pointe. With a propeller at her heel to move her across the ocean.
And its people are drawn with an eccentric style - a cross between Ronald Searle and George Booth - that emphasizes all the anatomical parts normally left off by conventional animators. No, I'm not speaking of genitalia but of quads, noses, eye corneas, fingers and elbows.
I loved the opening: a nightclub scene from Paris in the twenties, where the entertainment is the, well, the Triplets of Belleville - three slinky women who dance and sing and have a catchy rhythm they make up themselves. Then the camera pulls back and we see Champion, a little boy with an old man's face, and his grandmother Madame Souza, who are watching the Triplets on their old television set. We will meet the Triplets again.
The story, if it can be called that, is an oblique assault on logic. Champion grows up to be a Tour de France racer, trained by his grandmother who follows him with a whistle in her mouth to set the rhythm of his cycling. But he is kidnapped by three men in black, who take him to a gambling den where he is part of the entertainment. Grandmother's chase, helped by the Triplets, the rescue and escape from the villains is the content of the rest of the film, though not its pleasure. The pleasure comes from Chomet's moments of great visual and aural invention - Grandmother's tuning the spokes of his bicycle, and then playing the rim like a drum. The rain of frogs, dynamited by one of the Triplets so everyone can have them for dinner. And so on. The film is filled with those goodies. You look for them around the edges of the screen.
Now for the bad news. The boy - the man, the racer - is hardly there. He's simply an object on screen. Grandmother and the Triplets - particularly the Triplets - are infinitely more interesting to us; they're people, characters; they're alive. Our interest flags, we look for the goodies instead of giving ourselves to the movie. Even at 82 minutes the film is too long. Chomet is a great animator but he needed a better writer. Nevertheless, it is a rare treat to see a film that so shamelessly goes its own way and owes so little to any of the conventions that constrict so many others.