The Triplets of Belleville

It’s been several weeks, because I needed some time to think and also they were busy weeks. Anyway, it’s been several weeks since I’ve seen “The Triplets of Belleville” (or “Les triplettes de Belleville” in the original French). It’s a highly regarded animation film, one of the finest examples of French animation, and I just needed time to process it. It’s not that it’s complicated, or heavy, but that it’s strange. It’s a film where my usual thought process about art has some problems.

Let’s start at the beginning, though. The Triplets of Belleville is about a grandmother and her grandson; also about a cyclists’ kidnapping scheme by the mob; and the triplets are also a significant part of the story, although they come in later. The plot is… pretty simple, actually (odd pace and direction aside), but giving a simple synopsis would do it injustice. It would sound silly, and maybe it is, but it’s also more… (Grandson gets kidnapped for mobsters amusement, Grandma goes across the ocean with their dog to rescue him, and settles at the Triplets’ until she finds him. Silly enough?)

Well, let’s move on. When I look at a story I like to analyse four parts – plot, characters, world and style. It’s helpful to look at them separately, and these categories work for me. So now that we’ve done plot, let’s move on to characters: they’re also strange, or maybe ‘bizarre’ is a better word. Take Grandma, for example. At the start she’s trying to connect to her grandson, giving him different things in attempts to cheer him up. She succeeds with a tricycle, and he’s happy, and she’s happy, and we’re happy, and cut to ten years later: she’s coaching him to be a cyclist in a strict regimen, massaging him with heavy implements, almost starving him, and he’s bones and muscles and apathy. And that’s… jarring. What happened? How am I supposed to feel about this? The rest of the characters are a colourful bunch, with a mousy mechanic and the squarest bodyguards in cinema, a flailing waiter and of course the triplets, but nobody ever says a word; however, they’re all still brimming with personality; HOWEVER… there’s still something missing. None of the characters really engaged me, I didn’t feel like I got to know any of them, they were all so… flat. Yes, that’s it, flat. Cardboard cutouts, extravagant but without depth; without actual personalities, just the appearance of one. Then again… they all fit perfectly in their weird little world.

World: the world of Belleville is grotesque and extreme. There are ships the height of buildings and buildings the height of mountains, enormous wine bottles sitting on their roofs. The humans come in every shape, from short and chubby to thin and wobbly to tall and square to ridiculously obese. It’s a world in an industrial revolution, expanding and developing without care: In an early scene we see a lone house swallowed by the once-distant city in 10-20 years. The world suits the characters well – it, too, feels more like a caricature than a living reality.

And now we get to style, everything to do with presentation, including designs and animation. So in a word: phenomenal. The film combines 2d and 3d animation, and the 2d is fantastic (the 3d, not so much). Despite my earlier qualms, I can’t deny the amount of personality the characters get from designs and body language alone. The exaggerated physicality of objects isn’t exactly realistic, but it’s consistent and has weight when it wants to. I am hesitant, though, about calling it ‘beautiful’. The aesthetic is tight and well crafted, but it’s also intentionally ugly. All characters are crude, all locations run-down and uninviting. It’s a refreshing break from the Hollywood Pretend Perfection, but there are gentler ways to design imperfection.

Well, that was a harsh critic, wasn’t it? Since although I mostly enjoyed the movie, it was with a grain of salt. Yet I feel like I’m being unfair, and I can’t recommend against it. After all, many people adore it, especially intellectuals and animation fans. Then the fault must be with me, no? In some part of me that wouldn’t bend, wouldn’t budge from it’s comfort zone. It feels like I’m missing something, something important in the movie, and how can I pass judgement if I don’t have all the pieces? How can I measure something that mocks my tools of measurement? What would be the point, even? Seeing as this movie attempts and succeeds in playing by its own rules.

Well, in the end, that can be said of any art and indeed anything. We can’t withhold judgement just because we lack perfect understanding, we would get nowhere, then. We should judge when we feel we know enough, and make clear our background and biases. This would help others see our opinion as it is, an opinion, not an absolute verdict from an objective arbiter. We just want to convey our feelings, after all. It’s all about communication. With that in mind, I will summarise my impression of The Triplets of Belleville:

Characters are full of character but not depth, and I found it hard to empathise with them. Since characters are very important to me, this drastically influenced my enjoyment of the film. The story is imaginative and mostly unpredictable, but also silly and lacking a strong narrative. The animation and design are brilliant, but not quite to my taste. Overall it was enjoyable, but not “for me”.

If you have the opportunity, however, I recommend that you find out if it’s for you.

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