Les Triplettes de Belleville

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Japanese title: Belleville Rendex-vous
Director: Sylvain Chomet
Running time: 80 minutes
Language: French
Opens Dec. 18
[See Japan Times movie listings]

It’s in sepia and scarred with soft, silvery needles, like interference on a TV screen. Retro Renaults screech to a halt alongside a Parisian cabaret. With such an opening, the mind and eyes prepare for the familiar nostalgic and sentimental icons, for perhaps an unrequited love story in Montmartre.

But after three seconds, the French animation “Les Triplettes de Belleville” squashes all such expectations and blows away any lingering whiff of prettiness with a rude gust of Gallic wind. It turns out the Renaults contain hugely buxom ladies and they spill out of the back seats, yanking ridiculously puny husbands in their powerful fists. The last of them waddles into the theater, her escort wedged in between the twin folds of her ample buttocks. Once inside, the orchestra toots and saws on battered, patched-up instruments and on stage the gaudy three-some known as the “Triplets of Belleville” croon their catchy song.

Jazz performer Josephine Baker appears topless, clad only in a skirt made of bananas, and Fred Astaire interrupts his dance routine to get devoured by his tap shoes (that suddenly transform into crocodiles’ heads). And so it goes: “Les Triplettes” is all motion and nonsensical wit, and crammed to the gills with French flair to equal Coco Chanel’s first little black dress.

The delight of “Les Triplettes” is in the total absence of meaning or moral — all it asks is that you gorge your visual senses and then walk out satiated. With this first, feature-length animation, director Sylvain Chomet has been hailed as a nouvelle vague French version of Hayao Miyazaki. But while Miyazaki’s works (“Spirited Away,” for example) are fraught with meaning and life lessons (subsequently inviting endless speculation and analysis), Chomet’s style is defined by a sly avoidance of critique or discussion.

Just when you think the story is pulling at your heartstrings, Chomet makes a quick swerve and plunging the whole sequence into the Valley of Nonsense, and you forget all ponderings in the eagerness to see the next crazy antic. The characters are all grotesquely caricatured in varying degrees of exaggerated Frenchness (the wine-soaked villain with a huge red nose, the hero with his elongated face and heavy lidded-eyes). And while the story is deliciously entertaining, the motives for why the characters do what they do are never fully explained and it never makes much sense. But all that ceases to matter. It’s enough to be intoxicated by the onslaught of the images, to notice and delight in the intricate visual details that decorate every frame. It’s vive le cartoon with a vengeance.

Contrary to the title, the protagonists of “Les Triplettes” aren’t the triplets at all, but a grandmother and her shy, silent grandson. The parents, it seems, are long dead and the boy has grown up pensive and lonely. To get him interested in life, grandma gets him a puppy (as droopy and sad-looking as the boy) and encourages him to play the piano. But it’s only when she buys him his first tricycle that he shows signs of happiness.

In the next frame the boy has become an adult and he’s practicing for the Tour de France. In the rain and on hilly cobblestone streets, he pedals wearily, patiently, until his legs can’t take it anymore. Grandma (the untiring coach always tagging along with a whistle) brings him home, lays him out on the kitchen table and vacuums his aching thigh muscles to, I guess, cool him off. But when he finally gets to compete in the race, he’s kidnapped by some mafia types who plan to use cyclists in their casino as showpieces.

Grandma, of course, sets out to rescue her grandson. Her quest takes her to a fictional city called Belleville, which appears to be part N.Y. and part Montreal, where huge overweight people throng the streets under a fat Statue of Liberty and the staple diet consists of multitiered hamburgers served by obese, grinning waitresses.

Is this a thinly veiled indictment of the American lifestyle? Do we smell a political message? The answer is a decided “non” — Chomet is just having fun, and his depictions of the French are just as (lovingly) caustic as his jabs at the Americans. Grandma, who teams up with the famed Triplettes (now formidable old ladies but still as saucy as ever) stays in their shabby apartment and is served live frogs for dinner, with dried tadpoles for dessert. The triplets, in their oh-so French way, perform in fur-lined dresses and when at home, cook and eat in their camisoles (and never mind the wrinkles!). They’re old but they’re always singing and twitching their hips to the music, in a way which can only be expressed in the world of animation.

Of another texture entirely, but equally satisfying is “Father and Daughter,” winner of the 2001 Academy Award for Short Animated Films. With no dialogue or closeup shots whatsoever, director Michael Dudok de Wit traces the tale of love between a small girl and her father. One day, he disappears and she’s left to grow up by herself, but part of her never forgets him and is always waiting for the day he reappears. Like “Les Triplettes,” this is a work that makes you thankful for the medium of animation — and the incredible world it can create in just eight short minutes.

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