The Triplets of Belleville
directed by Sylvain Chomet
(Sony, 2003)

Animated films have offered us lots of unlikely heroes and heroines over the past century, but few as unlikely as Madame Souza, the focal point -- not to mention heart and soul -- of Sylvain Chomet's wistful tale The Triplets of Belleville.

That said, Madame Souza is also one of the least animated figures to grace the silver screen. Slowly she moves, worn down by age and held back in part by nature itself: her one leg is somewhat shorter than the other, necessitating the use of a corrective shoe. But if you think any of that is going to stop Madame Souza from doing what has to be done, then it's time you learned something about a Frenchwoman who's made up her mind.

Madame Souza lives in a quaint little French farmhouse, or at least she does until the elevated railroad comes through and nearly pushes the house off its foundation. But her big concern is raising her orphaned grandson, Champion, who seems to have only one interest in life: bicycle racing. (How French can you get?) So Madame Souza becomes his trainer, not to mention mechanic, and, with help of their plus-size dog, Bruno -- whose only interest in life is barking at trains -- she prepares Champion for the Tour de France.

Now what, you ask, does all this have to do with the Triplets of Belleville?

The triplets, a popular 1930s musical act, open the film with a musical number that rivals the best black-and-white animated efforts of the Fleischer Brothers (Betty Boop, Popeye, et al). Then they pretty much disappear until they come, quite by coincidence, to the rescue of Madame Souza and Bruno, who have tracked Champion to Belleville following his abduction from the tour by a couple of square-shouldered, synchronous-smoking French Mafiosi.

Now if you can follow all that, you're good. And you have to be to follow The Triplets, because Chomet, who wrote as well as directed the film, offers nothing in the way of explanation: no narrative, no titles, not even much dialogue to speak of.

The Triplets of Belleville is visual storytelling at its finest: one deftly articulated image after another, all of them adding up to a great story, but only if the viewer is willing to do the math. Not a frame is wasted, and not a frame can be ignored. This isn't just a film worth watching; it's a film that requires watching -- and is fun to watch.

For diversion, we have Bruno's monochromatic dreamland train rides, and for punctuation, there's the ever-present sound of Madame Souza's training whistle and the Triplet's heavily syncopated musical numbers. And for the sheer power of imagery, there's little that can top the scenes of Madame Souza and Bruno in a pontoon boat trailing the ultra-svelte ship carrying Champion away from them, followed by the most imaginative car chase -- with the most unlikely ending -- ever to emerge from filmdom.

Chomet's quiet little tale has delighted audiences in Cannes, in Toronto and in Telluride. Now it's your turn, provided you're ready to do the math.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 9 October 2004

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