The Triplets of Belleville (Sylvain Chomet, 2003)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents The Triplets of Belleville.

French whimsy goes through the looking glass in this imaginatively offbeat animated wonder by animator Sylvain Chomet. A boy named Champion trains relentlessly for the Tour de France with the help of his diminutive and club-footed grandmother, Madame Souza, and their overweight dog, Bruno. When race day arrives, Champion and a few of his fellow racers are kidnapped by a pair of square-shouldered henchmen and taken across the ocean to thronging Belleville where they are forced to pedal as part of an illicit gambling operation. Bruno and Mme Souza follow to save their boy and find unlikely help from the renowned Triplets of Belleville, a trio of eccentric music hall stars turned elderly experimental musicians. Filled with twisted imagery and proceeding with the measured pace of a dream, The Triplets of Belleville is a strange, loving, and very French tribute to silent comedy and to bygone eras of traditional animation.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

  • New 4K digital master, approved by director Sylvain Chomet, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio Soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • New audio commentary with Sylvain Chomet
  • New conversation between Chomet and animator Bill Plympton
  • The Making of The Triplets of Belleville, a 36-minute documentary discussing the film’s production
  • The Cartoon According to Sylvain Chomet, a brief discussion with the director on designing his characters
  • Music Video by -M- for “Les Triplettes de Belleville” featuring animation from the film and a short piece on its making
  • Le temps d’un tournage, an interview with Chomet for French television on his earlier work
  • The Triplets As Seen By…, a selection of impressions on the film by animators Bill Plympton and Michel Ocelot, singer -M-, and comedian and cyclist Antoine de Caunes
  • The Old Lady and the Pigeons, Chomet’s 1997 short film about a starving policeman who dresses up like a pigeon to trick an old woman into feeding him
  • Carmen; Chomet’s music video collaboration with Belgian pop star Stromae
  • Chomet’s 2014 “couch gag” for The Simpsons
  • Trailers
  • New English subtitle translation
  • PLUS: A new essay by film critic Michael Sragow and flipbooks with art by Chomet

The landscape of feature-length animated films was changing significantly in 2003. The success of Don Bluth’s An American Tail in 1986, produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, led a number of studios to push into the animation market in the 1990s, only to see the bubble burst in the early 2000s. Pixar’s flawless rise to prominence crystallized in 2003 with the release of Andrew Stanton’s Finding Nemo. The movie won the studio its first Oscar for Best Animated Feature and a murderer’s row of critical darlings and commercial smashes followed. Finding Nemo’s triumph stood in stark contrast to DreamWorks Animation’s Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (Tim Johnson and Patrick Gilmore, 2003). Released just over month after Finding Nemo, Sinbad bombed so badly that the studio left traditional animation altogether, with DreamWorks Animation co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg remarking that “the idea of a traditional story being told using traditional animation is likely a thing of the past.” For studios, Pixar’s computer-generated animation, which emphasized hyper-realistic details in its worlds, was the new standard for success and lay-offs swept through the industry, casting off traditional animators unable to pivot into CGI production. Even juggernauts like Disney could not ignore Pixar’s success. The Mouse House was watching its own theatrical features flounder as well and Disney was increasingly leaning on theatrical and direct-to-video released sequels to preexisting properties. Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli would remain a last successful bastion for traditional animation, receiving awards and accolades in the process, but the profile of global animation would be slight outside of Ghibli and Aardman Animations. Alternatives were eventually found with the arrival of Laika, Cartoon Saloon, and the bountiful library amassed by GKIDS, but these developments were still years away. As a result, it is difficult to express just how unconventional Sylvain Chomet’s The Triplets of Belleville appeared when it was released in 2003. Co-produced by various European and North American companies, Chomet’s near-silent adventure veered far away from the look and tone most animation studios were stampeding toward.

Chomet makes the unlikely choice of casting an elderly woman as the protagonist of his film, an uncharacteristic selection that Hayao Miyazaki repeated the following year with Howl’s Moving Castle (2004). Madame Souza, a diminutive Portugese grandmother with a hint of a moustache and a club foot, cares for her withdrawn grandson Champion in their home outside of Paris. Searching for something that will capture his young imagination, she introduces him to the piano and buys him a dim-witted puppy named Bruno before a tricycle lifts the boy out of his doldrums. Fast forward a couple of decades or so and the plump child is now a lean cyclist with bulging leg muscles. Trained under the tutelage of his indefatigable grandmother, Champion earns himself a place in the Tour de France but he is kidnapped by gangsters during one of the Tour’s grueling mountain stages near Marseilles, then whisked across the ocean to Belleville where he is forced to compete in virtual bike races for the French mafia. Mme Souza and Bruno follow Champion and his abductors to towering city where she plots to save her grandson with the help of the Triplets of Belleville, a trio of once popular entertainers now happily living in semi-poverty in their old age. It is a simple, if odd plot that could still be the basis for a successful Pixar release (with sales of adorable Bruno plushies and Champion-branded tricycles) were it not for the grotesque, surreal and even nightmarish lens through which Chomet presents The Triplets of Belleville.

Chomet declares his highly particular tone and style immediately with a Fleischer-esque prologue that introduces the titular triplets during their heyday as the singing and dancing stars of the Belleville stage. With the squish and stretch of east coast animation in the 1930s, the triplets (Rose, Violet, and Blanche) sing for an audience of massive women and tiny men, sharing their stage with dexterous guitarist Django Reinhardt, Fred Astaire and his pair of ferocious tap shoes, and Josephine Baker, who performs the infamous banana dance that made her a beloved icon to her adopted Paris. The sequence ends with the arrival of a gigantic dancing toddler before it dissolves into the bluish haze of a television broadcast airing in Mme Souza’s home. Now in the “real world” of the film, that rubber hose animation is replaced with something far less fluid and much less appealing. In contrast, the film settles into an array of creaky caricatures that emphasize distinctive silhouettes and carnivalesque designs. Champion is twig-thin save for his inflated thighs and calves and his imposing aquiline nose. Bruno is a barking barrel of old dog set on rickety, knock-kneed legs. The gangsters are black-suited monoliths straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, while the now elderly triplets resemble cackling tubes, their heads sunk low into their soldiers. France during the Tour is a partying wash of gap-toothed overbites, middle-aged paunches, and spindly limbs, while North American Belleville is a parade of sloshing, lava lamp-like obesity. In fact, looking beyond the geriatric quintet of Mme Souza, Bruno, and the triplets who lead the film, there are almost no conventionally attractive faces or physiognomies offered in The Triplets of Belleville at all. Chomet’s approach of emphasizing interesting designs over easily attractive ones most clearly resists the cutely homogenized forms that had long dominated feature animation and which were taking new shape in Pixar’s CGI worlds. Still, The Triplets of Belleville is not as technologically divergent as it might seem.

It is quite easy to see Chomet’s hand-drawn designs in The Triplets of Belleville and characterize the film as a kind of anticipatory throwback to traditional animation just as the process is being abandoned, yet Chomet employs 3D animation effects extensively in the film. Streets filled with cars and roads filled with bicycles were obvious challenges to produce, as Chomet remarked, “You can’t turn something like a bicycle into something emotional and animating spokes is an absolute nightmare.” 3D imagery brought consistency to such components and eased the burden on the animation team, and Chomet preserved the loose, sketchy style by degrading his 3D elements and reducing their overly pristine appearance to compliment his 2D work. Interestingly, Chomet cites the “Golden age of the Disney studio” as a main influence on his animation style, a period he associates with 101 Dalmations, The Aristocats, and The Jungle Book and which is typified by 101’s introduction of new Xerox technology which preserved the animators’ rough pencil lines and provided a wonderfully textural quality to the movie. Chomet’s familiarization with 3D animation in turn opened up a host of new possibilities previously unconsidered and which led to one of the movie’s most impressive sequences and one of the filmmaker’s favourites: Mme Souza chasing an ocean liner on a pedal boat across mountainous waves (although MMC! is particularly fond of Bruno’s CGI-enhanced train dreams that Chomet uses to cleverly transition between acts).

The goat-glanding of 3D animation back into tradition 2D styles only adds to the bespoke quality of The Triplets of Belleville, something all the more significant given that precious little dialogue is employed to tell its story. Chomet’s film certainly takes some inspiration from silent era comedians like the stone-faced Buster Keaton, though its biggest acknowledged debt is owed to the gestural comedy of Jacques Tati. References to Tati can be found in a poster for Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday hanging in the triplets’ apartment, the weather vane atop Mme Souza’s home that resembles Tati’s cycling postman in Jour de fête, and a clip from Jour de fête that appears on a television screen. (Tati’s clearance of the clip with Tati’s estate, Les Films de Mon Oncle, resulted in his forming a relationship with the comedian’s youngest daughter, Sophie Tatischeff, and his being approached by the estate to adapt one of Tati’s stories into his following picture, The Illusionist.) With little dialogue to fill in the soundscape of The Triplets of Belleville, the film becomes a masterclass in scoring, soundtracking, and foley work. At times, the movie expresses epic grandeur by laying Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor (conducted by Elliott Gardiner) over Mme Souza’s ocean crossing, but more often the film is exquisitely and selectively precise in its detailed noises, as when sound artists employ paper-clip-tipped gloves to perfectly capture the skittering clacks of Bruno’s nails on hard floors. Musician Benoît Charest takes these customized efforts to their extreme by actually playing the triplets “home jazz” on the everyday objects used in the film’s performance, employing newspapers, refrigerator racks, and a cylindrical vacuum cleaner from the ’50s he nicknamed “Mouf-Mouf.” In turn, the uniquely cut-to-fit nature of the film’s production mirrors the customized spirit in the film described in post-training rubdowns with egg-beaters and lawn mowers, an old dog tricked into serving as a spare tire, and the French mafia’s cycling apparatus.

It is difficult not to see The Triplets of Belleville as pushing back against the animation industry generally and taking particular aim at Disney. Chomet had grown up loving Disney films but his four months in 1997 at Walt Disney Studios in Toronto was an influential disappointment on the animator. He recounts:

When I arrived, they were working on the sequel to Hercules. The atmosphere was bizarre. They had such a cynical way of thinking. I came in and said, ‘I can do some designs,’ and they said, ‘OK. Yeah. That’s fine.’ When I worked there, I realized what not to do on a feature film. They have this mentality they’re trying to do ‘product’ — they don’t make films anymore, it’s like they do advertisements now. People are very talented there but there’s no soul.

At a high level, the allegory of artistic bankruptcy in Triplets is plain — a talented and devoted young man gets to live his professional dream only to be stolen away to the big city where he is chained to a machine and forced to mindlessly enact a simulation of his passion. Chomet, however, cannot help but get specific in his anti-Disney screed through the diminutive, mousy mechanic who maintains the cycling machine. With his small stature, his sniffing nose, and his large ears (accentuated by the guards he wears while attending a barber), he evokes thoughts of animation’s most famous mouse, while his neat hair, prominent nose, and moustache recalls Uncle Walt himself. The cycling machine resembles a scaled-down version of an Epcot ride with its rear-projected screen emulating the park’s dark rides and motion simulators. And if that was not enough, Chomet evens goes so far as to include a photograph of the mechanic at an amusement park holding a confection prominently labelled “SUCKER” and sharp-eyed viewers might even notice a Mickey-shaped turd floating in a rough-looking toilet. The Triplets of Belleville is rarely characterized as an invective against the Mouse House, perhaps because feature-length animated films are an unexpected forum for a diss track or perhaps because it lacks the explicitness of Air Pirates Funnies, Robert Armstrong’s Mickey Rat, or Wally Wood’s Disneyland Memorial Orgy poster, but it deserves consideration as an artistic and commercial polemic.

Chomet was born in Maisons-Laffitte, near Paris, specialized in art in high school, and received his diploma in 1987 from the prestigious comic-strip studio at Angoulême. In 1988, he moved to London to establish a freelance commercial practice, moved to Canada in 1993, and then relocated in 2004 to Edinburgh, Scotland, to establish his ill-fated animation studio, Django Films. The Triplets of Belleville draws on Chomet’s experiences in France and abroad, pressing them through the filters of nostalgia and caricature. Chomet’s Belleville presents an agglomeration of New York City, Montreal, and Quebec City (with a bit of Paris thrown in for good measure). While the bustling metropolis suggests New York on its face, its buildings look stolen from Montreal (most particularly the Jacques Cartier Bridge) while much of its skyline is topped with the steeply pitched and spired copper roofs of Quebec City’s famed Chateau Frontenac. The whale Mme Souza briefly rides while pedaling into Belleville alludes to the St. Lawrence Seaway and sharp-eared francophones will hear some Quebecois joual in the mumbled dialogue of the city’s inhabitants. The Americanness of Belleville is most obviously expressed in the French cliché of all its citizens being obese, most particularly a rotund Statue of Liberty holding a hamburger and ice cream cone. Chomet made similar use of this perspective on America in his short film The Old Lady and the Pigeons (1997), although he reduces the sproinging, sloshing sound of their movements to some degree here.

The lens through which Chomet imagines Frenchness expresses a nostalgia for the 1960s and is more fondly carnivalesque. Chomet’s France features the Parisien Enchaîné newspaper (a combination of two actual papers, Le Parisien and Le Canard Echaîné), the modernist clock face broadcast on French television at the time, La Vache qui rit cheese, and, most importanly, the français moyens (or French working class) who gleefully support the spectacle of the Tour de France. The film luxuriates in the eccentricities of the Tour: the caravane publicitaire and its customized promotional vehicles, the voiture-balai (or broom wagon) picking up struggling riders and depicted as a vintage Citroen van, five-time Tour winner Jacques Anquetil wearing the familiar yellow jersey, and “Roberte Rivette,” a parody version of Yvette Horner who was an iconic fixture of the race from 1952 to 1963 and typified by her wide smile and accompanying accordion. Triplets’ designs pay particular homage to the caricatures of Albert Dubout, a beloved satirical illustrator whose work earned him France’s Legion of Honour in 1953 and who Chomet seems to most explicitly acknowledge in the film’s opening images of towering, corpulent women attending the Triplets show with their miniature husbands in tow. The city of Belleville echoes this nostalgia by its depictions of a French mafia obsessed with wine and cycling, who absurdly drive exaggerated 2CVs, and who resemble distinctively French figures like left wing activist José Bové or Gotlib’s parodical superhero Superdumont. Chomet even seems to slip in a bit of a visual pun in a Belleville greasy spoon by having its busty waitress bear the name tag “Fanny Roberts,” “Robert” serving as French slang for breasts. These particular nods offer a depth to Triplets’ universal story of familial love and devotion. They create a density in its world-building that French audiences could interrogate and the global audience could find reliable without being specifically conversant with the film’s lexicon of cultural citations.

Neither Chomet nor The Triplets of Belleville have been without controversy. Chomet’s had previously collaborated with illustrator Nicolas de Crécy on award-winning comic book projects and de Crécy had designed the backgrounds for Chomet’s short film The Old Lady and the Pigeons. The two fell out after de Crécy accused Chomet of plagiarizing his style for the film (and there are certainly similarities that can be seen between Chomet’s Triplets and de Crécy’s book Le Bibendum céleste). Controversy followed Chomet’s to his next project The Illusionist (2010). The film is set in mid-century Edinburgh and tells the story of a Hulot-like stage magician named Tatischeff (Tati’s family name) who is unofficially adopted by teenage-girl from a small community and who struggles to support both of them with his career in decline. The project was based on an unproduced script written by Tati as a personal letter. Following the film’s release, Tati’s middle grandson, Richard MacDonald, asserted that the story was an attempt to reconcile with his eldest and illegitimate daughter, Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel, and that Chomet’s failure to acknowledge this in the film or otherwise was a slight against the material and that branch of Tati’s family. Chomet rejected such claims, asserting that he believed Tati wrote the story for Sophie out of guilt over his absences from his family. Chomet had spoken to Sophie Tatischeff when acquiring authorization to use Tati’s Jour de fête in The Triplets of Belleville and she recalled the story to him then. When he was later approached with the script years after Sophie’s passing, Chomet personally identified with the guilt expressed in the script, although he has asserted publicly that he discussed the matter with Richard MacDonald and maintained to Tati’s grandson that the emotion in the script could only be attributable to the love for a child lived with and left (Sophie), and not for a child never really known at all (Helga). Chomet’s Edinburgh-based production company, Django Films, ended up being a failed effort for Chomet, marred by lost funding on projects, his public firing from The Tale of Despereaux and a consequential legal battle with Universal, and his open criticisms of the quality of animators produced by British art schools. The Illusionist was followed by Chomet’s live-action debut feature Attila Marcel (2013) and smaller animation projects including a couch gag for The Simpsons. His next film, The Thousand Miles, a Fellini-inspired story about the world’s most beautiful road race, Italy’s Mille Miglia, reportedly went into production in 2016 but remains outstanding, although Chomet has also been busy in recent years establishing his own animation academy, The SChool, in Bayeux, France.

The Triplets of Belleville PosterCriterion has already endorsed Chomet’s work by featuring The Triplets of Belleville and The Illusionist as limited engagements in its Saturday Matinee program. Pairing the two films into a single Collection release would make easy sense, although Triplets seems to be the more widely appreciated work of the two. Personally, I enjoy the very melancholy tone of The Illusionist and its backgrounds of mid-century Scotland are breathtaking, but I find the Hulot-esque quality of its titular figure to be somewhat superficial and therefore out of place with its general sentiment. With Criterion’s physical library still slim on animated works, Triplets seems like a natural addition. It provides a brilliant forum to consider the technical, industrial, and commercial aspects of modern animation and its relationship to earlier eras, while remaining a brilliantly creative picture that is nightmarishly adorable in its tone and style. The Triplets of Belleville deserves much better than to pedal in place on a Sony Pictures Classics Blu-ray that may not even be in print anymore. C’mon Criterion! Bouge ton cul!

There are a number of posters and cover treatments associated with Chomet’s film, but if the Collection was looking for new artwork for its own edition of The Triplets of BellevilleMMC! would happily suggest Irish illustrator Ignatius Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick’s alternate poster for the film is faithful to Chomet’s style and nicely expands on the surrealist sensibility of the film by using its boxy henchmen as a slope for Champion and Mme Souza to climb. You might already be a fan of Fitzpatrick’s work and not even know it. Fitzpatrick’s art might already be on your Blu-ray shelf as he provided the cover treatment for Arrow Academy’s release of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment.

Credits: The cover synopsis for this imagined Criterion edition is a reworked amalgam of the Criterion Channel’s brief summary, the Sony Pictures Classics MOD Blu-ray’s synopsis, and the back cover summary from the Canadian 2-disc DVD release. Most of the special features are ported over from various released editions including the Arts Crafts Korean Blu-ray which includes a feature-length commentary by Chomet and flipbooks of his art. We’ve imagined a lengthy interview between Chomet and American animator Bill Plympton and have included various short works by Chomet. Lastly, we’ve tapped Michael Sragow to provide an essay given his past contributions to the Collection and his review for The Baltimore Sun that hailed The Triplets of Belleville as a “madcap milestone.”

This post was also greatly informed by film’s press kit, Pierre Floquet’s essay “What is (not) so French in Les Triplets de Belleville” for Animation Studies, Aliya Whiteley’s discussion of Chomet’s films for Den of Geek, Carlos Aguilar’s listicle for Cartoon Brew, Charles Bramesco’s article for Little White Lies, Gerald Peary’s review for The Arts Fuse, Jay Scott’s analysis, and Virginie Selavy’s interview of Chomet for Electric Sheep.

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