There is an aura about Sylvain Chomet’s Triplets of Belleville that recalls a comment Fellini once made about the use of color in film, comparing it to “breathing underwater” because “cinema is movement; color is immobility.” The film’s dream-like collision of soft, washed-out background palettes and pinpricks of bright carnival colors foregrounded by the forms of characters who cross the screen in varying fields of movement (from clicking, snapping bursts to lethargic swells), gives the impression one is watching an ancient fairground amusement slowly cranked back into life. Interested more in the rumbling whoosh of passing trains, the gulping bass notes of a dog’s barking and the creaking of bicycle wheels, the practically dialogue-free film is one vast soundtrack detailing the movement and interaction of figures and shapes in space (Chomet’s love of Jacques Tati will not come as a surprise).
The character design is extraordinary, recalling the work of Chomet’s friend, artist Nicolas Decrecy. Both seem interested in gothic cities on the edge of time populated by strange bodies, distorted and grotesque, yet seemingly appropriate for those spaces. The city of Belleville is like some nocturnal amalgam of Paris and New York, on the edge of a vast sea and of the world itself. The population is an absurdist portrait of Americana—bloated citizens balloon in slow motion down the street, living to consume, a fact to which a briefly glimpsed and twistedly reworked Statue of Liberty readily attests (she holds up a dripping ice-cream cone and clasps a cheeseburger to her chest). But there’s also something of the decaying décor of old Europe in the shadowy corners, a sense of graying light on stone and under bridges, filtering through the cracks of the brown sidewalks and yellowish air that is “modern life.” It is as if the “old world” was left broken in the process of birthing a terrible infant, corpulent and ever hungry, but its ghost remained behind, lost in the folds, withdrawn and lunatic. The Triplets themselves, magnificent creations and Chomet’s triumph, embody this crazed remembrance with their frantic, scatterbrained, organic entertainments.
Chomet opens the film with a vision of this past, a “newsreel” in sepia tones that captures the Triplets, singing and dancing celebrities from another generation, in their prime, perfectly aligned in voice and movement and grinning into the “camera” with maniac glee. It is a 20th-century vaudeville bacchanalia, and Chomet references the cabaret and Hollywood universe of the 1930s by way of caricatures of Josephine Baker and Fred Astaire, and yet he also hints at the otherworldly nature of these performers, their now almost fairy-tale world and the strangely off-center quality that so many of those old songs and film reels have upon reflection, cut-off from the regular flow of life and sealed away forever.
Anton Levay, founder of the Church of Satan, would often point out, in a manner that indicated a humorous appreciation for such things, that if one wanted to search out devilish inspiration in music, one need not look to heavy metal but rather to the “old timey” songs and performers with their eerie, phantasmal overtones of disconnection. The Triplets belong to another time and place, another city of Belleville, and they are indeed disconnected but still alive and vibrant. Obsessed with performance, the Triplets make music where there is none, using the materials they find around them, from treasured refrigerators and newspapers to their own bodies, to make rhythms like old witches casting spells.
The entire film is like one elaborate spell, a ritual of character and events that makes little rational or logical sense, a dog that dreams of trains or a secret society of gangsters that kidnaps bicyclists to make them perform for their own gambling amusements, but that summons forth images of a profoundly moving truthfulness. In his skillfully understated presentation of these honest underpinnings of the film’s fantastic displays, such as the loving relationship between a grandmother and her grandson and the wonderfully eternal little girlish qualities of the time-worn Triplets, flicking their hair behind their ears and giggling, Chomet demonstrates a remarkable ability to signify the touchingly human without suffocating the rest of the work in crippling, syrupy Disney-esque overtness that overwhelms so many American animated films.
If the pacing of the film seems to falter ever so slightly near the end, such concerns will likely have little impact when The Triplets of Belleville becomes impossible to dislodge from your memory, growing in significance and magical resonance as the days pass. The last moments of the film, followed as it is with a dedication to Chomet’s parents, is far more movingly elegiac a meditation on parental love and aging than one is likely to find in any number of melodramatic Hollywood weepies; Chomet is as deliberately careful in articulating the gently poetic deployment of those often overwrought emotions in his film as one would expect from a near masterpiece.