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15.3.04

The Triplets of Belleville

In your desperate attempt to see all those Oscar-nominated films you missed, you should definitely go to see the French animated film Les Triplettes de Belleville (in its English version, The Triplets of Belleville). Or, if you are like me and the Academy's pronouncements seem ludricrously irrelevant, you should see it because this movie was easily more worthy of the Best Animated Feature than Finding Nemo (allegedly a ripoff of a French comic book: see posts on December 21 and March 14), which won that award. Big surprise. The film made $340 million, so we should also crown it with a gold statue. Hooray. If you need another reason to see it, go because there may be the added bonus of seeing the short film envisioned by Salvador Dalí for Disney, Destino (see my review on February 26). Of course, here the Oscars got it right . . . oh, wait, no, it did not win Best Animated Short Film either. What a show: the pageantry, the intrigue, the glamor, the recognition of milestones in cinematic history. Yawn. *Click*

The director of Triplets, Sylvain Chomet, was born in 1963 in Maisons-Laffitte, a small town in the suburban region of Paris that is in part the inspiration for the dreary home of the movie's two main characters. He went to arts school and did advanced studies in animation at a new school in Angoulême. The first work on what eventually became this movie began ten years ago, and he had a difficult time getting it funded and produced. The story is charmingly strange, and the style of animation is hard to describe, but it is definitely image-based and relies on very little dialogue. In an interview published on the French Web site linked above, Chomet describes his animation style the following way (my translation):

It is based on mime and the interplay of characters. I am more influenced by real scenes than by animation. By Tati's films, yes, but also those of all the masters of silent movies: Chaplin, Keaton. The sense of timing is also very important. It's the reason why I love Louis De Funès so much and the whole English comic school, as in series like Absolutely Fabulous or Black Adder with Rowan Atkinson. I also love the animated work of Richard Williams and Tex Avery. In comic books, Goossens is also a master of timing.
Sylvain Chomet, Les Triplettes de BellevilleThe movie is dedicated to Jacques Tati, and at one point, I glimpsed a movie poster for Tati's movie Les Vacances de M. Hulot, on the wall of the triplets' apartment. The movie's main characters are an old grandmother, short and triangular in shape and with one leg longer than the other, and her depressed grandson. The latter is shown first as a solitary, chubby child who is always a little blue. He finds his reason for living in cycling, and his grandmother helps him train for, what else, the Tour de France. Her tall, narrow house is located in an imaginary suburb of Paris: at the opening of the film, it seems like the countryside, but then a new Métro line is put in on an elevated railway that goes so close to the house that it has to be bent backwards to accommodate it. (In the image from the movie shown at right, the far-off image of the Eiffel Tower is lost behind a construction crane, industrial smokestacks, and ominous passenger jets above.) As she helps him train, they ride through the streets near the house, dangerously close to a bus whose destination is marked as the imaginary "Mairie du XXIe Arrondissement" (modern Paris has only 20 arrondissements, each with its own mairie, or town hall). The interviewer asked why the interiors of the film were "modest but warm, a picture of ordinary France in the 50s and 60s," and why Parisian scenes are so important in the film. Chomet answered as follows:
Because I came from a rather modest background, and not a fashionable one. I remember going to visit an old lady, the neighbor of one of my aunts, and finding a small apartment that smelled of floor polish, where each little object, even the smallest, was valued. I would be incapable of producing stories that take place in comfortable surroundings. Naturally I draw inspiration from what I have lived.
The grandson, Champion, rides in the Tour behind the leader who is identified as "Nanard," which was a nickname of the legendary cyclist Bernard Hinault (he was also called le blaireau, or the badger), who won five Tours de France (1978, 1979, 1981, 1982, and 1985). Like most Tour winners, Hinault was a phenomenal climber who could probably have won the Tour again, except that he was challenged in 1986 by another legend of la grande boucle, American Greg Lemond. In the movie, Champion abandons the race, along with two other cyclists, on an unidentified mountain that is, I think, the infamous Mont-Ventoux. Although Hinault never raced on that mountain, it has ruined many cyclists, the worst case being Englishman Tom Simpson, who died there in 1967. It is identifiable in the movie by the windswept desert seen on the peak, where the powerful Mistral wind makes the growth of vegetation impossible. (The mystery of that landscape has made the Ventoux a revered site for centuries. In the 14th century, the poet Petrarch made the ascent and wrote about it in a famous letter.)

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