Les Triplettes de Belleville Review
Until I saw Les Triplettes de Belleville (released as Belleville Rendez-vous in the UK and The Triplets of Belleville in the US), I had never heard of director Sylvain Chomet. His previous claim to fame is La Vieille Dame et les Pigeons, a short piece of animation that displays, albeit in a more simplistic form, many of Belleville’s hallmarks. Widely marketed as a French film, this French-Belgian-Canadian co-production with partial UK funding was largely animated in a cramped office in Montréal with a skeleton crew working with outdated technology and very little room for error. The results are, quite frankly, astounding.
The story is a relatively lightweight affair, and is strictly there to support the artwork and gags rather than the other way round. Madame Souza is rigorously training her grandson, Champion, for the Tour de France. During the Tour, Champion and two other cyclists are kidnapped by members of the French Mafia and taken to the city of Belleville, a place that looks like New York, Montréal and Paris combined, where they will be made to cycle until they collapse, with members of the Mafia taking bets on who will be the only survivor. Meanwhile, with her overweight dog Bruno in tow, Madame Souza follows her grandson’s captors to Belleville and enlists the aid of three old hags who were formerly immensely popular singers (the “Triplettes” of the title).
Intriguingly, the film manages to convey information without any real use of dialogue. There are at most four lines in the entire film, and none of them play any real part in the story. The pacing is very slow, never going anywhere in hurry, and with even the more tense sequences drifting by without any real sense of urgency. As such, this is definitely going to irritate those with short attention spans, and the first time I saw it, I have to admit I felt there were moments that plodded. For me at least, however, the film definitely improved with a second viewing. When I first saw it, the deliberately slow pace worked against it, because I wanted to know what would happen next but found myself waiting too long for the results. On subsequent viewings, with a prior knowledge about what is going to happen, the film is much more enjoyable because the atmosphere, visuals and jokes can be appreciated to their full extent. In particular, a number of background jibes are much more noticeable when seen for the second time, such as a piece of excrement floating in a toilet bowl that is shaped like Mickey Mouse’s ears.
Belleville makes its influences clear. Stylistically, it adheres more to the look of the political cartoons found in broadsheets than to the overly cleaned-up look of, for example, Disney’s more recent works. The outlines of the characters are deliberately rough and penciled (recalling Disney’s Xerox period, when films like One Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Jungle Book were produced), and both the designs and movements are heavily caricatured. Much of the comedy recalls the works of Jacques Tati, and at one point a poster for M. Hulot’s Holiday can even be seen on a wall. Realism is the last thing on Chomet’s mind with this film, with all the characters and even the settings being exaggerated to the point of being bizarre, with designs that border on the grotesque. The French characters are given large noses and elongated features, and the Americans look more like over-inflated balloons than people. It definitely makes a nice change to see an animated film that embraces the fact that it is a cartoon rather than trying to ape real life. It’s definitely a world away from the bland style Dreamworks applies to all of its traditionally animated features.
It’s also nice to see a 2D-animated film in an age increasingly oversaturated by CG. That’s not to say that there isn’t any 3D animation in Belleville - vehicles and some shots of the cyclists make are computer generated - but generally they are used sparingly, and are relatively unobtrusive, even if they don’t always fit in 100% with the 2D animation. For one thing, the 3D objects lack the rough edges of the hand-drawn animation, and their movement sometimes comes across as a little too smooth and pre-planned than the often unpredictable and quirky 2D. The use of 3D was definitely a necessary evil, especially considering how small the production crew was for this film, but at times it certainly appears to be more of a time-saving device than anything: especially in the case of the cyclists, it often seems that 2D animation could have been used to better effect.
It’s actually surprisingly difficult to review a film like this. The experience is so visceral that it’s impossible to explain its impact in words. Les Triplettes de Belleville is, overall, a very interesting and unique piece of work. Les Triplettes de Belleville is, overall, a very interesting and unique film. If it doesn’t win you over the first time, persevere, because there is a lot to be appreciated from this. It manages to combine a childish curiosity with more adult cynicism, and I for one am hoping for it to snag the “Best Animated Feature” award at this year’s Oscars.
This DVD is presented anamorphically in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, slightly cropping the image vertically (despite the packaging’s claims that it is presented in its intended ratio of 1.66:1). It looks a little cramped at times, but not to the extent that it did when I saw it theatrically, when it was cropped even further to 1.85:1. The results are overall quite eye-pleasing, albeit with some niggles.
The transfer is sourced from a digital master rather than from film, and given its dated, deliberately rough look, the overly clean, grain-free presentation does not really suit it. Unfortunately, this also means that it has all the trappings normally associated with digital transfers of 2D-animated films, namely occasional blocky gradients and irritating mosquito noise around the animation outlines. I really wish studios would stop using digital transfers, as they create more problems than they solve, and more often than not end up making the film look unnatural and ugly.
Nonetheless, it does look pretty good on most of the time, with decent colour saturation and brightness. It does look a tad murky at times, but I suspect this was a deliberate stylistic choice; I remember it looking the same when I saw it at the cinema. The image is slightly soft, but not in an unattractive way. I detected no edge enhancement whatsoever. The encoding lets the transfer down on a couple of occasions, the worst examples being the black and white opening sequence (which features some artificial film grain) and the storm the rages when Madame Souza is following the ship across the sea. The disc is not exactly pushed for space (5.63 out of 9 GB is used), so there is really no excuse for this.
The DVD includes a standard Dolby Digital 5.1 mix and, more bizarrely, an uncompressed PCM stereo track. I can’t think why this was included, as the space could arguably have been put to better use housing a DTS track – a full bit rate DTS 5.1 track would, in fact, have taken up a similar amount of space on the disc.
Anyway, the Dolby track is very strong indeed. Belleville is a decidedly musical cartoon, and both the score and the catchy theme song are represented well. The bass is nice and deep – best shown during the thunderstorm when Madame Souza is crossing the ocean (which is set to Mozart’s Requiem), and the rears are given some nice work to do with ambient effects and music.
The menu design is absolutely superb, nicely themed and with some great, quirky animation. The transitions, thankfully, do not outstay their welcome, being short and to the point.
This 2-disc set comes in a nice custom cardboard slip case with a hub inside. The artwork is quite nice, although unfortunately it looks in places like a bad scaling job – blocky lines and edges abound. One nice touch is that the disc housing the film is designed to look like a vinyl record.
The vast majority of the extras are housed on the second disc, but Disc 1 does have a few features of its own. (Note that a standard edition, featuring only the first disc, is also available.)
Theatrical trailer - The original 2-minute trailer, a shortened version of which premiered online.
Music video - The music video is found by selecting the “M” symbol on the main menu. This bizarre little video features a rather odd-looking fellow called M who dances to one of the songs from the film, and at times even interacts with actual film footage as a cartoon version of himself. It’s very, very quirky and very, very French.
The rest of the extras are on Disc 2.
The future of animation? – documentary - This 35-minute documentary interviews director Sylvain Chomet, Belgian chief animator Benoît Féroumont and 3D effects animator Pieter Van Houte in some considerable detail. My French isn’t good enough to catch everything they say, but from what I can gather this is a very good documentary. It is comprised almost entirely of interview footage with very little in terms of clips of the film. The three men interviewed are candid and matter of fact about the production, talking about how successful they feel the film is as a whole.
Animation by Sylvain Chomet – featurette - A personal favourite of mine, this brief 4-minute featurette is basically Chomet sitting at his kitchen table talking about his philosophy on animation character design, backing it all up with on-the-fly drawing demonstrations.
Interviews - Four interviews are featured, including Antoine de Caunes (the presenter of Eurotrash and an established cyclist, actor and director in his own right), singer “M”, artist Michel Ocelot and American animator Bill Plymton (who speaks in English with French subtitles). They essentially give their opinions of Les Triplettes de Belleville, which are often quite interesting.
Making of the music video – featurette - This relatively uninteresting 3-minute featurette shows how the music video (on Disc 1) was created.
TV featurette - Running for approximately 6 minutes, this made-for-TV promotional piece is quite interesting for the amount of rough animation it shows, as well as the cramped working conditions of the animators’ Montréal office.
3 scenes with commentary - It’s a shame Sylvain Chomet didn’t record a feature-length commentary, as he had plenty to say about the three scenes provided here: the black and white opening, the Triplettes’ nightclub performance, and a scene near the start that runs after Madame Souza and Champion return home from a night of training. Chomet talks a lot about technique and the atmosphere of each piece, but once again I’m afraid my French simply isn’t good enough to catch everything he says.
Gallery - This gallery is more than a little pointless, since the images all have an annoying interlaced TV effect overlaid on top of them. I believe higher quality versions of most of these images can be found on the film’s official web site, anyway.
Teaser trailer - A 38-second teaser, which I had not seen until now.
Les Triplettes de Belleville is a very enchanting film and one that fans of animation should definitely check out. This French special edition is pretty good, but bear in mind that no English subtitles are provided, so if you don’t speak French reasonably well (a number of the people interviewed in the bonus features speak very quickly and not very clearly) you would be advised to buy the UK release from Tartan. I have not had the chance to view that release, but because of their track record, I would advise potential customers to wait until reviews begin to appear.