Older women are a rare protagonist, and not just in animation; strong and capable grandmothers even more so. But Triplets of Belleville is its own kind of rare film. Following Madame Souza’s quest to find her grandson Champion, a bicyclist kidnapped by the French Mafia, Sylvain Chomet’s debut feature film has quiet simplicity that may seem unusual to most American audiences.
Beginning with a black-and-white television program featuring the Triplets of Belleville and several caricatured but real-life stars of the time, we meet Madame Souza and her young grandson Champion. After the unspecified death of his parents, young Champion lives with Madame Souza, who tries to find the quiet young boy’s interests, eventually even getting him a dog, Bruno, but to no avail. That is, until she finds a scrapbook all about bicycling; the young boy gets a tricycle and the grown man has a bicycling regime leading him to the Tour du France. Oui oui! But the French Mafia lie in wait. Sacre bleu! Champion and two other cyclists are kidnapped from the race, and Madame Souza does her best to follow their trail – to the bustling metropolis of Belleville.
The animation is its own experience, bordering more on caricature than realism, with the enlargened noses or teeth, the bikers’ muscular legs exaggerated, and the Mafia henchman able to gel into one black-suited unit. This caricature increases in Belleville, which is a fusion of several North American cities, but mainly a mocking portrayal of New York in the United States, complete with a large Statue of Liberty holding a hamburger and an ice cream lantern. Of course, that setting means a lot of very large people, especially women (they are even a featured character design in the opening black-and-white program). The character design may be off-putting, but it highlights well-known characteristics or interpretations of them, keeping the style realistic but full of the creator’s own view of the world.
Madame Souza has her own compact design, especially when compared to the tall Triplets, but it works in her favor as she navigates the city, accompanied by trusty Bruno. She’s a strong character from the beginning, as are the Triplets. The Triplets are at least fifty, and Madame Souza much older as she was already a grandmother when the Triplets were young performers in the 1930s. But these are tough old broads, living in their little one-bedroom with their broken instruments, their multiple awards, their photos of classic stars, and their penchant for fresh frog.
Another off-putting element for American audiences may be the slower pace, which suits the straightforward story of the film. There aren’t any subplots or overall character arcs, outside of perhaps Bruno’s issue with trains; there is just the main story, told from a couple different angles to keep the audience as informed as they need to be. There is just Madame Souza, determined to find her grandson, and her new friends, ready and willing to help; there isn’t any romance or heroic escape attempt on the part of the bikers.
In fact, the bikers are largely compliant. The entire film has very little dialogue, and none of it direct, but the bikers offer no argument we see onscreen. Of course, with the mafia, they may know better than to argue. But there isn’t even a scene of the bikers talking amongst themselves, plotting or keeping their hopes up for rescue – something we would be sure to get from a film here. Champion’s character already seemed passive (also unusual for a young man to American audiences as one might expect him to be loud or boisterous, especially as an athlete), but it seems that many of the characters are quite passive in the film. Outside of Madame Souza and the head mafia man, most of the characters are just along for the ride. It doesn’t hinder the plot but it does produce a slower and quieter film.
The people are quiet but the music complements the film throughout. In addition to the regular score, by Benoît Charest, there is the main Triplets song, ‘Belleville Rendezvous,’ that permeates through the entire film. It’s a fun song, reminiscent of the 1930s music halls, but also simple. Most of the vocal music is simplified, used as background noise; the Italian barbershop music is nonsensical Italian, random words thrown together but fast-paced enough that those not fluent would never guess but would recognize it as Italian. Chomet’s world-building stays true to that supporting simplicity, as everything around the story is designed to support the story experience.
Essentially, Chomet wants to tell this story and he wants to focus on this story, without extra fluff or padding if he can avoid it. With all the amped-up energy and jam-packed plots of recent animated movies from our American studios, The Triplets of Belleville offers a sort of relief; the audience can watch and be entertained and be immersed, without being annoyed or overwhelmed or having to turn the volume down. Triplets may seem slow-paced or unusually designed, but the film is a fun and simple journey, one worth joining.
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Viewer Discretion: The Triplets of Belleville is rated PG-13, for mild nudity, some violence, and obscene gestures