REVIEW: DVD Release: Belleville Rendez-vous

Film: Belleville Rendez-vous
Release date: 26th January 2004
Certificate: 12
Running time: 78 mins
Director: Sylvain Chomet
Starring: Michèle Caucheteux, Jean-Claude Donda, Michel Robin, Monica Viegas, Béatrice Bonifassi
Genre: Animation
Studio: Palisades Tartan
Format: DVD
Country: France/Belgium/Canada

With its unique animation, soundtrack and premise, Belleville Rendez-vous brought critical acclaim and award recognition for Sylvain Chomet, whose new film, The Illusionist, is exciting fans and critics alike ahead of its debut at the 64th Edinburgh Film Festival.

A scratchy, sepia, jazz-soaked animation sets the tone in the opening scene in the fictional city of Belleville, where the triplets of the original title (it was released as Les Triplettes de Belleville outside the UK) deliver their swing harmonies in a seedy 1920s speakeasy. The film is being watched by a sad eyed boy and his grandmother; the blue toned visuals and silence broken by the howls of a dog, the cries of circling swallows or the rattle of a train imply the boy’s orphaned state.

It’s only when the grandmother buys the boy a bike that he wakes from his apathy and together they train obsessively to achieve his dream of racing in the Tour de France. The setting switches from the dark, rainy north of France to the scorching heat and punishing hills of the French midi, where our now adult hero battles the tortuous conditions, only to be kidnapped by sinister, sunglass wearing Mafioso villains who take him prisoner onboard a ship, along with two other cyclists from the race.

Undeterred, the boy’s granny tracks his footsteps with their trusty dog Bruno, following the kidnappers (by means best left for the viewer to discover themselves) to the city of Belleville. There she faces destitution until she’s taken in by the three triplets, now elderly and subsisting on a diet of marsh frogs. With their help, the granny uncovers the villains’ dastardly plot...

The visual style of the animation is wonderfully expressive and grotesque, referencing early animation styles, and exaggerating for dramatic effect – the buildings of Belleville are, like its villains, aggressively perpendicular and oversized, towering over their own fat, distended statue of liberty.

The infrequent dialogue emphasises the isolation of the boy and his grandmother, with the most vocal character being Bruno the dog, howling mournfully at passing trains from the prison of his window. The jazz of the soundtrack is a flexible medium which reflects the storyline – when the three sisters appear in front of the grandmother, clapping skeletal hands and uttering cat like cries, the effect is of a danse macabre; after their meal of stewed frog followed by blackened frog skewers, their song chirrups and croaks like a frog chorus, to sinister, not McCartney-esque cute, effect. There is a complete change of mood during the transatlantic crossing to Belleville, with the accompaniment of a piece of epic and violent classical music.

There are lovely visual moments which seem to emphasise the contrast to the ugliness of modern life – the scene of one of the twins on the marshes, a moon above, has the stillness of a Japanese woodblock print, before she tosses an explosive into the marsh and a shower of frogs rains down. Later, as they complete their froggy dinner, a circular dish of frogspawn cuts to a frogspawn moon.

The film’s melancholy is cut through with impromptu moments of humour, the Boy Scout trying to help the grandmother across the road and being hit with a stick for his efforts; and the dog dreaming of riding a train while the passengers trapped inside the house bark and howl as he passes. There’s also a dark and satirical edge. The opening scene shows an Astaire-style dancer being attacked by his own snarling shoes, while Belleville’s citizens look like characters from a George Grosz street scene of 1920s Germany - corrupt and bloated. The artistry of the triplets’ musical improvisation is ignored by the denizens of the nightclub where they perform, while its obsequious maitre d’ wails and bows on the floor when the mafia boss is offended by the granny’s growling dog. French national identity hardly fares better, with the chauvinism of the French president exhorting his people to support their cycling champions with cries of “Vive la République!”

This viciousness contrasts with the film’s touching portrayal of old age. The grandmother - short, round, moustachioed, sporting an orthopaedic shoe, and peering at the world through thick glasses, shows tireless love for her grandson, and constant ingenuity in the face of domestic tragedy and international villainy. The three triplets are grotesque and ugly yet happy in their frugal life, performing their songs to the improvised accompaniment using a newspaper, a hoover and the shelves of a fridge as their instruments. The frightening reality of starvation and destitution isn’t far away in Belleville, yet music and courage persist to bring these characters together and enable them to battle the city’s sinister crime lords.

A film with rich layers of reference to early 20th century film and music, shot through with melancholy and pathos, beautifully observed characterisation and delightful moments of humour. A paean to the wisdom and fortitude of grannies throughout the world. KR

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