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The Triplets of Belleville

Though I hadn’t seen The Triplets of Belleville, I’d heard plenty of good things about it. Specifically, I knew that the film was nominated for two Oscars, one for Best Original Song and one for Best Animated Feature. In point of fact, it was the very first PG-13 movie to be nominated for Best Animated Feature. Additionally, it was the feature-length debut of writer/director Sylvain Chomet, a filmmaker with a fantastic reputation for creative and spectacular animation.

Finally, I got the chance to see the film and experience its lauded quality for myself. The intro played and I was glad to see that it lived up to the promise. The film opens with the eponymous Belleville Triplets, singing and dancing in a Depression-era nightclub. The animation was very retro, perfectly evocative of early black-and-white animation from the ’30s. Yes, the intro did have a few uncomfortable moments, but racism was much more socially acceptable back then, so whatever. It was still a very energetic and wonderfully animated opening, nicely charming in a retro kind of way.

But then the rest of the film happened.

The narrative proper takes place several decades later (I don’t think a specific time frame is ever given). Our protagonist is Madame Souza (that’s her name according to Wikipedia, anyway), who was not one of the Belleville Triplets and indeed had no part at all in the prologue. Anyway, Souza has a dog named Bruno and a grandson named Champion (the latter name, again, had to come from Wikipedia).

The plot of the movie begins roughly half an hour in, when Champion competes in the Tour de France. Partway through, he and two other bicyclists mysteriously disappear. Souza sets out to find her grandson, and Bruno helps track him to some huge metropolitan city in America. There, Souza inexplicably runs into the Belleville Triplets, who are now just three crazy old ladies who subsist entirely on a diet of frogs. The Triplets quickly befriend Souza and the lot of them set out to find Champion. As to why he was kidnapped in the first place, I’ll get to that later.

First of all, it bears repeating: This movie features three French people who eat nothing but frogs. And this movie was made by a Frenchman. Jesus help me, I’ve got nothing to say to that.

With that out of the way, I should point out that the film is almost completely silent. Admittedly, I saw the film in French without subtitles, but the dialogue was so minimal that I doubt it made much difference anyway. Still, the question must be asked: Why is this film silent? What has been accomplished by presenting the movie without dialogue?

Watching this film, I kept thinking back to The Artist, a picture that was notable for being made almost entirely without sound. In fact, given that the film was made as an homage to silent cinema, it had to be made without sound. Even better, the film used sound in such a way that it conveyed themes like obsolescence and change. Making the film silent may have been a gimmick, but it was also the right choice.

Compare that to Triplets of Bellevue. The film has a similar lack of dialogue, but that approach isn’t to express any themes or to assist in the storytelling. In fact, I’d argue that the lack of dialogue only drags the storytelling down, since the characters need so much more time to pantomime their emotions and actions. Additionally, the characters’ motivations are made a lot more opaque, since we need to wait that much longer for explanations as to what these characters are doing and why. Quite often, the explanations are only partial, and some never come at all. I’ll give you some examples.

Early on, we see Champion coming home after a long night of riding his bike. Souza proceeds to give him a massage with what appears to be a lawnmower. At the time, I had no idea what the hell was going on. Maybe if these characters could talk, I’d have learned a lot sooner that Souza was training him to take part in the Tour de France.

In the same scene, we see Souza doing… honestly, I’m still not sure what. As far as I can tell, she was somehow tuning the spokes of a bike wheel, using pliers and a tuning fork to get the various notes right. Later on, we see Souza playing this bike wheel as a musical instrument. How did she learn to do this? Why does she do it? Hell if I know.

Also in the same scene, Bruno dreams of a train. This dream recurs throughout the film. I have no idea what it means, and the dream appears to have absolutely zero plot relevance.

This brings me to another problem the film has: The padding. The movie is painfully slow-paced, almost as if the filmmakers knew their plot wasn’t enough to sustain a feature-length film. Hell, even with all the useless and drawn-out scenes, this movie was still only 78 minutes long. But really, the pacing is just a symptom of a larger problem.

Through the vast majority of the movie, the proceedings are totally devoid of energy. For one thing, the colors in this film are all terribly drab, with muddy browns and swampy greens coating almost every frame. Even worse, the characters in this film barely emote. Souza, Champion, and the Triplets all go through pretty much the entire film without changing expression. Honest to God, the dog in this movie was more emotive than all the human characters put together.

Worst of all, the film opens with a musical number from the Belleville Triplets — the namesake of the movie, remember — and their next musical number doesn’t come until forty minutes later. That’s half the goddamn movie! The score is similarly scarce, as plenty of scenes are presented entirely without music. The movie could go for huge stretches of time without dialogue, score, or much of anything happening.

This lack of music wasn’t just boring, it was a betrayal. The prologue may have been black-and-white, but it still had vibrant animation and it had some upbeat music. By placing that sequence at the very beginning, the filmmakers implicitly promised more of the same, yet there are only two other noteworthy musical numbers (no pun intended) in the entire film.

Furthermore, even before the advent of talking pictures, filmmakers knew the value of music in film. Every theater worth its admission price had a pianist or even a full orchestra to play some enjoyable music with the narrative onscreen. For a filmmaker to eschew spoken dialogue while neglecting the emotive power of music is foolish. To neglect music in a movie that’s ostensibly about a trio of singers — nay, a movie that’s actually named after a trio of singers — is insulting.

However, as much as I grew to dislike the movie, I didn’t really come to hate it. In spite of all my complaints, there was still a great deal of creativity in the plot and in the character designs. The film also provides a few funny moments, and those rare few musical numbers with the Belleville Triplets were a real treat. All told, I was perfectly fine with agreeing to disagree on this movie.

But then, at the third act, the plot finally kicked back in. And we finally learned exactly why Champion was kidnapped.

As it turns out, Champion and two other bicyclists in the Tour de France were kidnapped by American mobsters. The bicyclists were then drugged and hooked up to a bike racing simulator. The gangsters then proceeded to bet on who would win this virtual race, and any athlete who collapses before finishing gets a bullet to the head.

That sound you just heard was my bullshit alarm, going off with the noise and fury of an Occupy Wall Street rally.

First of all, there’s the fact that the Tour de France is a huge event, with cameras, spectators, and event coordinators covering every inch of the track at any given time. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the entire world is watching. So how exactly did the mobsters get away with kidnapping three participants in plain view to begin with?

More importantly, why on Earth would all these gangsters commit kidnapping, international smuggling, torture, and murder? Why would they put so much money and effort into building their own bike race simulator? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I absolutely believe that a criminal organization could do these things. But why would they, if it was just to make a betting pool on a miniature Tour de France?

It seems to me — as I’m sure it would to any human being with half a functioning brain cell — that these mobsters might have attracted a lot less attention, wasted a lot less time and effort, accrued fewer criminal charges, and made a lot more money if they just set up a betting pool for the real fucking Tour de France!!!

As far as I’m concerned, the movie completely jumped the shark at this point. The plot was revealed to be so incredibly stupid that there was no going back from it. Of course, it doesn’t help that the climax was filled with contrived car stunts, one of the slowest and least tense car chases I’ve ever seen (A fleet of cars vs. a pedal-powered vehicle without wheels? Get the fuck out of here.), and marksmanship that would make an Imperial Stormtrooper look like Katniss Everdeen.

As much as I honestly wanted to like The Triplets of Belleville, I’m left wondering how this movie got as many accolades as it did. The plot was padded to an inch of its life, non-existent through half the movie, and unforgivably stupid when it was there. Additionally, the colors were oppressively drab and the choice to omit spoken dialogue contributed nothing. The rare musical numbers were enjoyable, which makes it all the more shameful that the film didn’t have more music.

With all of that said, the animation was still very elegant, and the character designs showed a lot of creativity. I’m perfectly willing to admit that Sylvain Chomet is a world-class animator, but he flat sucks as a storyteller. Without a good story or some decent themes to hang his creative flourishes on, the film is just weird for the sake of being weird.

Thank the Academy it didn’t actually win either of those Oscars, that’s all I’m saying.

5 Comments

  1. Comment by Anonymous:

    Try out The Illusionist. Even though it’s from the same director as The Triplets of Belleville, I’m willing to say that it is the better film of the two.

  2. Comment by Curiosity Inc.:

    I’ve been meaning to try that one for a while, and this film wasn’t enough to discourage me. I’ll get to it when I find the time. Thanks for reading.

  3. Ping from Hana – Reflection of “The Triplets of Bellville” – – Film Studies:

    […] take the class. It was different, and a bit difficult to understand. A fun fact, according to MovieCuriosities.com, “the film was nominated for two Oscars, one for Best Original Song and one for Best Animated […]

  4. Comment by BLACK AND PROUD:

    it’s funny how the frenchman director making a movie of three french women who eat nothing but frogs bogs your head and you have nothing to say to that but the fact that the beginning of a PG13 movie we see a racist scene with a tiny bit of nudity but the scene itself casts a big shadow yet no one wants to talk about that either. You mentioned that back then racism was more socially acceptable well the problem hasn’t changed much today and comments like that and the way its just pushed to the side like commenting on french eating frogs is more paramount is help to blame o n the reason why we still have soo many racial problems today. That scene is what you want kids to watch and decipher themselves with what is racially appropriate or not. Racism is taught and its taught in the home. When your a child you see no difference between black or white or yellow racism is taught by people who have a lack of care for concern to correct it in their homes in this WHITE america or people who choose to spread that thought to their children and that scene just helps solidify my point. There is no real point for the scene it stands out, it doesn;t tie anything together its there yet because someone not of the race felt a type of way about it……and felt he could with no reprecussions. Yet if a black director comes out with a movie about a new day and age where blacks own whites as slaves all the comments and back lash a movie with a concept like that would get…….yet a new 12 years a slave can come out every year and frankly im tired of it being so socially acceptable to still today in 2017 shoot down a black person for nothing or skip over the topic of scenes like this in movies that are supposed to still be accepted now as socially acceptable

  5. Comment by Curiosity Inc.:

    Clearly, one of many things that went right over my head with regards to this film.

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